As the alien jar crept from the brown paper bag, I became fixated on the grotesque, thick layer of oil floating atop the unusually jaundiced goo. Why must I subject myself to this peanut butter imposter? The expression on her face told me that I had no choice in the matter. My mom proceeded to hand me the mutilated bread and implausibly dry peanut butter. I could barely swallow my first bite. Peanut butter was just the first in the long line of transitions that were to come. . . .
photo by Jonathan Coveney
But with a little coercion and self-education, I had an epiphany! Awareness of hydrogenated oils led to my most significant edification, and I am now a major proponent of natural and organic foods. Here is why:
Hydrogenated oils are commonly known as trans fats. The process of hydrogenation involves adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils in order to reconfigure the fat into a solid. This chemical process is designed to increase the shelf life and “flavor stability” in food, hence why you can open a bag of Cheetos or Oreos that you think you bought a few months, or even years ago, and they probably still retain their flavor and crunch. Why is this bad you ask? Well, consumption of trans fats increases LDL “bad” cholesterol and decrease HDL “good” cholesterol. Consumption of trans fat also leads to increased risk of heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, and is also linked to various cancers. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, effects occur even at low levels: if you add just 2% more calories from trans fat to your diet, there is a 23% increased risk for heart disease.
So while it was maddening to surrender my favorite foods one after the other, I now realize how important avoiding hydrogenated oils are. I have found, however, getting people to swap their chemically enhanced staples such as peanut butter for organic versions is no easy feat. Thankfully, though, organic and natural options have evolved so that the tastes and flavor profiles now match the quality of the food, and I promise that tasty alternatives can be found!
It is important, however, to still check the ingredients of all products since it has become a deceptive marketing technique to add “zero trans fats” labels. According to the FDA guidelines, products that contain less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving can be listed as containing zero trans fats. In terms of peanut butter, which I have chose to focus on, you should look for products that contain only peanuts and salt. The layer of oil on top—which I once found revolting—is just the naturally occurring separation of the peanut oils after the “crushing” process. It takes only a few seconds—and a little strength—to stir the natural peanut butter until the oil is incorporated and then voila, you have a jar of delicious and natural peanut butter. There are many brands of natural peanut butters available now (some don’t even require mixing!) and all different types and flavors. My current favorite that I highly recommend is Santa Cruz Organic. And while I like my peanut butter crunchy and not smooth, I’ll hold off on the that debate for another day.Tweet