Trans fats hinder multiple
steps in blood flow regulation pathways
hydrogenated vegetable oils in processed foods contain
trans fatty acids that interfere with the regulation of
blood flow. A new report reveals a new way in which these
"trans fats" gum up the cellular machinery that keeps
blood moving through arteries and veins.
In the August 2009 issue of the international journal
Atherosclerosis, University of Illinois emeritus veterinary
biosciences professor Fred Kummerow reports for the first time
that trans fats interfere with more than one key enzyme in the
regulation of blood flow.
Kummerow begins by describing the
two main causes of heart disease – sudden
blood clots in the coronary arteries, and
atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries to
the point where it interferes with blood flow.
"The arteries of someone who dies from atherosclerosis look
like old scrub boards as a result of the formation of
plaques," Kummerow said. "They look corrugated, and this
plaque buildup continues to the point where it will stop blood
Trans fats contribute to both of these causes of heart
disease, Kummerow said.
Trans fats are made through hydrogenation, which involves
bubbling hydrogen through hot vegetable oil, changing the
arrangement of double bonds in the essential fatty acids in
the oil and "saturating" the "unsaturated" carbon chain with
hydrogen. Because double bonds are rigid, altering them can
straighten or twist fat molecules into new configurations that
give the fats their special qualities, such as the lower
melting point of margarine that makes it creamy at room
Kummerow, aged 94, has spent nearly six decades studying
lipid biochemistry, and is a long-time advocate for a ban on
trans fats in food.
While the body can use trans fats as a source of energy for
maintenance and growth, Kummerow said, trans fats
interfere with the body's ability to perform certain tasks
critical to good health. Because these effects are less
obvious, many researchers have missed the underlying
pathologies that result from a diet that includes trans fats,
Trans fats displace – and cannot replace – the essential fatty
acids linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3),
which the body needs for a variety of functions, including
blood flow regulation. Studies have shown that trans fats also
increase low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) in the blood, a
factor which some believe contributes to heart disease.
Trans fats are associated with increased inflammation in
the arteries. And trans fats have been found to change
the composition of cell membranes, making them more leaky to
calcium. Inflammation, high LDL cholesterol and calcified
arteries are the signature ingredients of atherosclerosis.
Trans fats also were shown to interfere with an enzyme that
converts the essential fatty acid linoleic acid into
arachidonic acid, which is needed for the production of
prostacyclin (a blood-flow enhancer) and thromboxane (which
regulates the formation of blood clots needed for wound
healing). While some in the food oil industry believed this
problem could be overcome simply by adding more linoleic acid
to partially hydrogenated fats, in 2007 Kummerow's team
reported that extra linoleic acid did not overcome the
"Trans fats inhibited the synthesis of arachidonic acid from
linoleic acid, even when there was plenty of linoleic acid
available," he said.
The new study reports that in addition to interfering with the
production of arachidonic acid from linoleic acid, trans fats
also reduce the amount of prostacyclin needed to keep blood
flowing. Thus blood clots may more easily develop, and sudden
death is possible.
According to the American Heart Association, each year more
than 330,000 people in the U.S. die from coronary heart
disease before reaching a hospital or while in an emergency
room. Most of those deaths are the result of sudden cardiac
arrest, the Heart Association reports.
"This is the first time that trans fatty acids have been shown
to interfere with yet another part of the blood-flow process,"
Kummerow said. This study adds another piece of evidence to a
long list that points to trans fats as significant
contributors to heart disease, he said.
Kummerow believes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's
new requirement (begun in 2006) that trans fats be included
on food labels is inadequate and misleading. Anything
less than one-half gram of trans fats per serving can be
listed as zero grams, Kummerow said, so people are often
getting the mistaken impression that their food is trans
"Go to the grocery store and compare the
labels on the margarines," he said. "Some
of them say zero trans fat. That's not true. Anything
with partially hydrogenated oils in it contains trans
"Partially hydrogenated fats can be made trans fat-free,"
Kummerow said. "The industry would be
helped by an FDA ban on trans fat that
would save labeling costs, medical costs and lives."
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 16
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