Nobel laureate Paul Sabatier worked in the late 1890s to develop the chemistry of hydrogenation which enabled the margarine, oil hydrogenation, and synthetic methanol industries. While Sabatier only considered hydrogenation of vapors, the German chemist Wilhelm Normann showed in 1901 that liquid oils could be hydrogenated, and patented the process in 1902.
During the years 1905 – 1910 Normann built a fat hardening facility in the Herford company. At the same time the invention was extended to a large scale plant in Warrington, England, at ''Joseph Crosfield & Sons, Limited.'' It took only two years until the hardened fat could be successfully produced in the plant in Warrington, commencing production in the autumn of 1909. The initial year's production totalled nearly 3,000 tonnes.
In 1909, Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights to the Normann patent; in 1911, they began marketing the first hydrogenated shortening, Crisco (composed largely of partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil). Further success came from the marketing technique of giving away free cookbooks in which every recipe called for Crisco.
Normann's hydrogenation process made it possible to stabilize affordable whale oil or fish oil for human consumption, a practice kept secret to avoid consumer distaste.
Prior to 1910, dietary fats primarily consisted of butterfat, beef tallow, and lard. During Napoleon’s reign in France in the early 1800s, a type of margarine was invented to feed the troops using tallow and buttermilk; it did not gain acceptance in the U.S. In the early 1900s, soybeans began to be imported into the U.S. as a source of protein; soybean oil was a by-product. What to do with that oil became an issue. At the same time, there was not enough butterfat available for consumers. The method of hydrogenating fat and turning a liquid fat into a solid one had been discovered, and now the ingredients (soybeans) and the “need” (shortage of butter) were there. Later, the means for storage, the refrigerator, was a factor in trans fat development. The fat industry found that hydrogenated fats provided some special features to margarines, which unlike butter, allowed margarine to be taken out of the refrigerator and immediately spread on a slice of bread. By some minor changes to the chemical composition of hydrogenated fat, they also found such hydrogenated fat provided superior baking properties compared to lard. Margarine made from hydrogenated soybean oil began to replace butterfat. Hydrogenated fat such as Crisco and Spry, sold in England, began to replace lard in the baking of bread, pies, cookies, and cakes in 1920.
In the 1940s Dr Catherine Kousmine researched the effects of trans fats on cancer.
Production of hydrogenated fats increased steadily until the 1960s as processed vegetable fats replaced animal fats in the US and other western countries. At first, the argument was a financial one due to lower costs; however, advocates also said that the unsaturated trans fats of margarine were healthier than the saturated fats of butter.
There were suggestions in the scientific literature as early as 1988 that trans fats could be a cause of the large increase in coronary artery disease. In 1994, it was estimated that trans fats caused 30,000 deaths annually in the US from heart disease.
In January 2007, faced with the prospect of an outright ban on the sale of their product, Crisco was reformulated to meet the United States Food and Drug Administration definition of "zero grams trans fats per serving" (that is less than one gram per tablespoon).
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011