When it comes to oils in packaged foods, everyone seems to have the same question: what does it all mean?
Be they hydrogenated, modified, palm, or something of the sort, oils are complicated. They're also in a lot of baked and packaged goods.
"I have been trying to find out information from food labels that state they have modified vegetable oil or modified palm oil and it seems somewhat confusing,"
It's not just you, reader.
"Fats are confusing, in general," says Andrea Holwegner, a registered dietitian and president of Calgary-based Health Stand Nutrition Consulting.
That's because now that trans fats are public enemy No. 1, food makers are coming up with a slew of less nasty fats to replace them.
"Consumers are becoming more concerned about trans fats because they elevate bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. They're bad for your heart," Holwegner says. "What manufacturers have been doing is taking trans fats out of their products, but they're replacing them with fractionated oils."
Fractionated (or modified) oils, which food makers use to give food the same texture and taste as trans fats, are found in everything from cookies to protein bars. Healthy, unsaturated fats aren't used in packaged or baked goods because they are liquid at room temperature and don't provide the same taste or "mouth feel" as a solid fat. While modified oils are better for you than trans fats, they're still not good for you.
"Modified or fractionated oils are typically saturated fats," Holwegner says. "They're not great for you because saturated fats still elevate bad cholesterol."
But what is a modified oil, exactly?
The reader who wrote in wondered if it was just another term for hydrogenated oil. (Hydrogenation turns unsaturated fatty acids into saturated or trans fats.)
Holwegner says it all depends on the oil and the process. Modified does not necessarily mean hydrogenated.
"It's not really a scientific term, so it depends on what they're doing to it," she says. "You could be talking about a modified olive oil." (Olive oil is known as a healthy fat.)
Alejandro Marangoni, a professor and food scientist at the University of Guelph, says modification can be unhealthy when it involves introducing a saturated fat to the mix. He explains how food makers can modify fats, turning unsaturated, healthy vegetable oils into more solid, saturated substances to give packaged foods taste, texture and to maintain their shelf life.
"If you have something that is liquid and you want to convert it into a solid, you have to add something solid to transform it," he says. "So what are you going to add? (Food makers) will go to Malaysia and buy palm oil," which is a saturated fat.
He says that while manufacturers call it palm oil, it should be called palm fat because it has a solid consistency.
"They add it to the (vegetable) oil, they blend it, and there you go -- your solidified oil."
Another process manufacturers use is called interesterification, and it's been around for years.
"It's a chemical process by which you take some of the actual structural components of oil or fat molecules and shove one into the other," says Marangoni. "You have chemically mixed them, whereas the other (solidification process) is just a physical mixing. In the end, you have molecules that aren't really fat or oil molecules anymore. They're something in between."
How does interesterification affect health?
"It's all the same crapshoot," he says, adding that he's seen research that shows interesterification has a negative effect on cholesterol, just like any other saturated or trans fat.
So what's a health-conscious consumer to do?
Both Holwegner and Marangoni recommend skipping the ingredient list altogether and focusing on the nutritional label instead. Don't worry about deciphering the specific type of oil in the food, or what's been done to it. Whether the oil is good or bad will be revealed in the label's fats section.
"Look at the nutritional label to see how much saturated and trans fats are in there, because the ingredient listing is confusing," Holwegner says.
The first and primary fat to avoid is the trans fat. Make sure the foods you buy have none. Saturated fat is the second-most important one to avoid. While your recommended daily intake will depend on a variety of factors like your height, weight and calorie needs (which a registered dietitian can help you determine), use the nutritional information to choose the healthiest products.
For example, compare two brands of crackers. If both have zero trans fats, choose the one with the least amount of saturated fat per serving.
And as time progresses, you can be sure new oils will hit the packaged food scene.
"There will be all sorts of weird stuff coming through the pipeline," Marangoni says. "The one you'll see disappearing is the hydrogenated oil because of the trans fats. Now they're going to have all sorts of oils from soybeans or sunflowers or genetically modified oils."
He emphasizes that no matter what oil is on a food's ingredient list, consumers should pay attention to one thing:
"Go back to the nutritional label -- how many saturated and trans fats grams," he says. "Forget about the rest."