Chemically, ''trans fat'' refers to a lipid molecule that contains one or more double bonds in ''trans'' geometric configuration. A double bond may exhibit one of two possible configurations; ''trans'' or ''cis''. In ''trans'' configuration, the carbon chain extends from opposite sides of the double bond, rendering a straighter molecule, whereas in ''cis'' configuration, the carbon chain extends from the same side of the double bond, rendering a bent molecule.
|Trans (Elaidic acid)||Cis (Oleic acid)||Saturated (Stearic acid)|
|Elaidic acid is the principal ''trans'' unsaturated fatty acid often found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.||Oleic acid is a ''cis'' unsaturated fatty acid that comprises 55–80% of olive oil.||Stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid found in animal fats and is the intended product in full hydrogenation. Stearic acid is neither ''cis'' nor ''trans'' because it has no double bonds.|
|These fatty acids are geometric isomers (structurally identical except for the arrangement of the double bond).||This fatty acid contains no double bond and is ''not'' isomeric with the previous two.|
Fatty acids are characterized as either ''saturated'' or ''unsaturated'' based on the presence of double bonds in its structure. If the molecule contains no double bonds, it is said to be saturated; otherwise, it is unsaturated to some degree.
Only unsaturated fats can be ''trans fats''. Saturated fatty acids are never ''trans fats'' because they have no double bonds, and therefore cannot display a ''trans''- configuration. Moreover, lipids containing a triple bond (but no double bonds) cannot be ''trans fats'' because a triple bond can only assume one configuration.
Carbon atoms are tetravalent, forming four covalent bonds with other atoms, while hydrogen atoms bond with only one other atom. In saturated fatty acids, each carbon atom is connected to its two neighbour carbon atoms as well as two hydrogen atoms. In unsaturated fatty acids the carbon atoms that are missing a hydrogen atom are joined by double bonds rather than single bonds so that each carbon atom participates in four bonds.
Hydrogenation of an unsaturated fatty acid refers to the addition of hydrogen atoms to the acid, causing double bonds to become single ones as carbon atoms acquire new hydrogen partners (to maintain four bonds per carbon atom). Full hydrogenation results in a molecule containing the maximum amount of hydrogen (in other words the conversion of an unsaturated fatty acid into a saturated one). Partial hydrogenation results in the addition of hydrogen atoms at some of the empty positions, with a corresponding reduction in the number of double bonds. Commercial hydrogenation is typically partial in order to obtain a malleable mixture of fats that is solid at room temperature, but melts upon baking (or consumption).
In most naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acids, the hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bonds of the carbon chain (''cis'' configuration — meaning "on the same side" in Latin). However, partial hydrogenation reconfigures most of the double bonds that do not become chemically saturated, twisting them so that the hydrogen atoms end up on different sides of the chain. This type of configuration is called ''trans'', which means "across" in Latin. The trans conformation is the lower energy form, and is favored when catalytically equilibriated as a side reaction in hydrogenation.
The same molecule, containing the same number of atoms, with a double bond in the same location, can be either a ''trans'' or a ''cis'' fatty acid depending on the conformation of the double bond. For example, oleic acid and elaidic acid are both unsaturated fatty acids with the chemical formula C9H17C9H17O2. This notably means that it is a solid at human body temperatures.
In food production, the goal is not to simply change the configuration of double bonds while maintaining the same ratios of hydrogen to carbon. Instead, the goal is to decrease the number of double bonds and increase the amount of hydrogen in the fatty acid. This changes the consistency of the fatty acid and makes it less prone to rancidity (in which free radicals attack double bonds). Production of trans fatty acids is therefore a side-effect of partial hydrogenation.
Catalytic partial hydrogenation necessarily produces ''trans''-fats, because of the reaction mechanism. In the first reaction step, one hydrogen is added, with the other, coordinatively unsaturated, carbon being attached to the catalyst. The second step is the addition of hydrogen to the remaining carbon, producing a saturated fatty acid. The first step is reversible, such that the hydrogen is readsorbed on the catalyst and the double bond is re-formed. The intermediate with only one hydrogen added contains no double bond and can freely rotate. Thus, the double bond can re-form as either ''cis'' or ''trans'', of which ''trans'' is favored, regardless the starting material. Complete hydrogenation also hydrogenates any produced ''trans'' fats to give saturated fats.
Researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture have investigated whether hydrogenation can be achieved without the side effect of trans fat production. They varied the pressure under which the chemical reaction was conducted — applying 1400 kPa (200 psi) of pressure to soybean oil in a 2 litre vessel while heating it to between 140 °C and 170 °C. The standard 140 kPa (20 psi) process of hydrogenation produces a product of about 40% trans fatty acid by weight, compared to about 17% using the high pressure method. Blended with unhydrogenated liquid soybean oil, the high pressure processed oil produced margarine containing 5 to 6% trans fat. Based on current U.S. labelling requirements (see below) the manufacturer could claim the product was free of trans fat. The level of trans fat may also be altered by modification of the temperature and the length of time during hydrogenation.
Trans fat levels may be measured. Measurement techniques include chromatography (by silver ion chromatography on thin layer chromatography plates, or small high performance liquid chromatography columns of silica gel with bonded phenylsulfonic acid groups whose hydrogen atoms have been exchanged for silver ions). The role of silver lies in its ability to form complexes with unsaturated compounds. Gas chromatography and mid-infrared spectroscopy are other methods in use.
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