Hydrogenation is a chemical process widely used in the food industry. While most of us might be aware of the harmful effects of consuming partially or fully hydrogenated fats, it helps to understand how and why it came about to be used so extensively in modern day food production.
What is Hydrogenation?
Hydrogenation is the process of treating polyunsaturated vegetable oils with hydrogen, in the presence of a metal (e.g. nickel). It changes the chemical structure of the oil to make it solid or semi-solid at room temperature. This change makes the oil more stable, easier to use and more resistant to heat.
Many reasons contribute to the invention of hydrogenated vegetable oils. Although it was initially introduced as a healthy alternative to animal fat, it is now considered far worse and damaging. While nobody can tell with absolute certainty which is the lesser evil of the two, one thing is certain: hydrogenated vegetable oils are here to stay.
Some key reasons that have led to an increased use of these oils are:
- Various studies published in the last two decades in the West that link heart disease directly to animal fat and animal products
- A need for vegan alternatives to butter, cream, milk, cheese, etc.
- An increase in demand for packaged food products that are standardised, cheap and readily available
- A decline in home cooking and demand for home cooked meals
- An increase in demand for junk and fast food
- Fad diets that promote supplements, prepackaged health meals, meal substitutes, diet food, etc. over fresh fruits and balanced diets
Why is it used in Food Production?
Partially or fully hydrogenated vegetable oils are easy to procure, store and re-use. Manufacturers can sell them at varying consistencies which help in improving the texture of product, increase shelf-life and drastically reduce the cost of the end product.
Why don’t we use it at home?
The simple reason we don’t use hydrogenated oils in our home kitchen is because there is no need to. A home cook, even when on a budget, will not re-use an oil several times for frying. Further, without the help of other chemicals like artificial flavors, stabilizers and enhancers, using hydrogenated vegetable oils will leave the end product tasting insipid and sometimes downright awful.
Common sense can tell us that consuming too much junk food is not healthy. Almost all junk food is prepared using partially or fully hydrogenated vegetable oils. While it might help those with a specific health agenda, most times we end up consuming these oils through extremely unhealthy food products. In that perspective, it might just be healthier to eat home-made cheese fondue with pickles rather than gorge on prepackaged low fat potato chips.