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Not all fats are created equal. Avocados and tortilla chips both contain fats, but one is more healthy than its delicious, crispy companion. Healthy fat generates energy and provides the building blocks to protect the body. But when it comes to the kind of unhealthy fats doctors warn you away from, hydrogenated oils and trans fats top the list.

What Is Hydrogenated Oil?

Hydrogenated oil starts as a healthy oil, but once it’s put through an industrial process that adds hydrogen, it turns into a solid. The benefit of producing a hydrogenated trans fat is to acquire an oil that’s cheaper than others and has a longer shelf life, making it a cost-saving choice for manufacturers of cookies, chips and more.

The drawback is an oil that can raises harmful LDL cholesterol, cause inflammation and increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Why Is Hydrogenated Oil Unhealthy?

The process of hydrogenating oil to create a trans fat changes its chemical makeup and makes it difficult for the body to metabolize. So, instead of being burned for energy, it’s stored in the body. Because of the health risks of consuming foods that contain trans fat, food manufacturers have been phasing out their production, reducing the amount of foods that contain trans fats by 78 percent.

Hydrogenation Definition

Hydrogenation is the chemical process by which hydrogen is added to the oil molecule, “saturating” it with hydrogen, giving the fat it produces the name “saturated fat.” These fats are saturated with those extra hydrogen molecules.

Fully Hydrogenated Oil

It turns out that even not all hydrogenated oils are created equally. Fully hydrogenating oils don’t contain those hard-to-metabolize trans fats. Rather than being creamy and spreadable like margarine, a well-known partially hydrogenated oil, fully hydrogenated oils are solid. But, if used carefully, these fully hydrogenated oils can solve some of the same problems for food manufacturers as partially hydrogenated oils, without the dangerous trans fats. These fully hydrogenated oils are created through a process called interesterification.

To know exactly what you’re getting, it’s important to check labels to see if the product contains partially hydrogenated oil. If it does, these are trans fats, regardless of what the advertising says.

List of Fully Hydrogenated Oils

  • Peanut Oil
  • Corn Oil
  • Cottonseed Oil
  • Avocado Oil
  • Olive Oil
  • Soybean Oil
  • Palm Oil

Palm oil, for instance, is used in peanut butter to keep the natural peanut oils from going rancid.

What’s Healthier: Butter or Margarine?

When comparing butter and margarine, the real choice is between trans fats or saturated fats. Saturated fats, like trans fats, can also raise bad cholesterol, but not as quickly or acutely as trans fats.

When it comes to fats, natural is better. Hydrogenated oils, particularly partially hydrogenated, can be dangerous, even when you think you’re making a healthy choice. One tablespoon of butter has 100 calories and 12 grams of fat, 7 of which are saturated.

In comparison, margarine has between 80‒100 calories, 9‒11 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 1.5-2.5 grams of saturated fat.

The best choice is really up to the individual and dietary needs.

What Is the Healthiest Spread?

When looking for a healthy butter or butter substitute spread, many people thought that margarine was a low-calorie, low-fat alternative. But that was before trans fats were understood, leaving butter lovers everywhere wondering “what is the healthiest spread?” According to Consumer Reports, the best option isn’t avocado oil or olive oil spreads; instead, it’s a combination of real butter and hydrogenated canola oil from Land O’ Lakes called Spreadable Butter With Canola Oil that delivers that ideal balance between taste and health.

Whether you choose margarine, shortening or a box of cookies made with cottonseed oil, read the label and know what you’re eating. The type of hydrogenated oil it contains may sound like a small thing, but it makes a big difference.

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About the Author

Becky Bracken

Becky Bracken is a lifestyle, parenting and real estate journalist who has written for outlets including Realtor, Babble, SheKnows, CafeMom, Complex and more.