Finally – U.S. Getting Rid of Trans Fats

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Coronary Heart Disease. Alzheimer’s. Breast Cancer. Prostate Cancer. Type 2 Diabetes. Obesity. Infertility. Depression.

Just reading this list elicits a feeling of dread, especially considering that all of these illnesses are rampant in our society. And looking at statistics our fight against them more often than not feels equivalent to Sisyphus perpetually trying to keep his stone from rolling downhill.  Last month marked a step in the right direction.

After more than a decade of study and deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally proposed a ban of trans fats, following the example of countries like Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland amongst others. It’s been a long and exhausting debate I followed closely during my seven years in New York. But although many people probably heard of them, equally as many have probably forgotten by now why it is so important to ban trans fats. It’s no surprise really – the debate was endless and lost the attention of the media years ago.

What’s the problem?

So what are trans fats, in lay man’s terms, and why are they a cause or risk for all those diseases listed on top? Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that exists naturally in extremely small amounts in animal fats such as meats or dairy. But all fats are not equal. Generally they contain long hydrocarbon chains, in which each carbon molecule can be orientated one of two ways around the bond that connects them with each other: cis, on the same side of a bond connecting the carbons, or trans, on opposite sides of that bond. Most fatty acids in the vegetable and animal kingdoms generally have cis orientations.  However, in 1910 a German chemist found that he could artificially generate trans fats by adding hydrogen to cooking oil which would turned the liquid into a semi-solid, such as margarine or shortening.

So why was this so revolutionary? It turned out that using solid partially hydrogenated fats gave products a longer shelf life than butter would, while keeping the same texture and flavor of a product. Many products containing trans fats didn’t need to be refrigerated. In addition, it was cheap to produce. Really, it was a by-product (or contaminant) of a chemical reaction. And thus the age of processed food had begun.

Where Trans Fats Hide

Trans fats are definitely edible. In fact they are lurking in many a product we all have the occasional craving for. Think Doritos, fast food, baked goods you’re your local super market, bread stick, crackers but also instant noodles, coffee creamers, pancake mix, frozen ready-to-use pastry, frozen meals – and the list goes on. Tasty, mostly, and convenient. But here’s the caveat. What’s convenient (well, and good for the food industry) is not necessarily a good thing per se.

The Price of Convenience

Due to lack of research, scientists believed for decades that trans fats were actually a healthier alternative to so-called ‘natural’ products, which contain more saturated fat and a higher fat content overall. Turns out, this was wrong. Compared to saturated fats in animal foods, trans fats have been linked with a 2.5- to 10-fold higher risk of heart disease and increased bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, a 73% greater risk of female infertility, a potential 75% greater risk for breast cancer, and depression. There is also numerous evidence that trans fat increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and triggers inflammation in the body, a contributor to many chronic diseases. By banning trans fats the FDA estimates 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths could be prevented each year in the U.S. alone.

Avoiding Trans Fats

So what to do if you live in a country that has no ban but only limits trans fats in processed foods? Personally, I go with the easiest way, at least if you like cooking: home-prepared foods. I agree, I may not be the best example as I even make home-made snacks and pastry dough, but let me tell you, even if you live a busy life as most of us do, it is manageable. Time management is the key and it is well worth it. Not only will you end up with better tasting food but you will decrease the overall burden of your daily exposure to risky ingredients that can impact your future health. Just because one can’t see or feel it now doesn’t mean disease may not strike one day. It’s an accumulative effect.

But if time is not on your side in your daily life, than a good way to start is by avoiding foods that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil or shortening. Many, but not all, food companies have reformulated their products to remove trans fats so it’s important to always read the label.

As a scientist I am glad that effective research has finally led to a proposed ban of trans fats in the U.S. It highlights how important and instrumental research is to keeping our society healthy. But the changes are happening too slowly. For its results to be effective, to prevent disease, and cut down on highly lamented spiraling health costs, findings need to be implemented faster than they have been up to now. That‘s the only way to keep the stone from rolling further and further, faster and faster – until its momentum becomes unstoppable.

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A Guide To …

… Making Your Own Body Wash

Ingredients

In my last post I described how I started making my own personal care products and experimented with different ingredients to tailor then to  my tastes and needs. And although that is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea to make their own, here’s a little guide on how to go about making your own body wash.

Think About Ingredients

What you choose to put in your body wash is important. Not just from an organic vs non-organic ingredient point-of-view, but also depending on your skin type, your preferences for smell and so on, similarly to when you select one in a store. Start off with something moisturizing for your skin type: sweet almond oil or apricot kernel oil are good choices for dry skin, grape seed oil for normal skin and coconut oil is good for all skin types as well as a cooling agent during the summer. The choice of soap is also important, and the easiest I have found to use is unscented castile soap that is made from olive oil (for example Dr. Bronner’s). Another good ingredient are floral waters such as rose or orange blossom, or herbal infusions such as Calendula or Chamomile. They have astringent and purifying properties and smell nice. Finally choose a scent. Essential oils are ideal for that. Lavender or Geranium for calm, Grapefruit to invigorate, or Sandalwood for something more earthy. If you struggle with blemishes, tea tree oil is also a good addition.

Source Your Ingredients

As important it is to decide on what you put into your body wash, it is equally important to know where your ingredients come from. Many of the ingredients such as Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap and essential oils are commonly found in your local organic shop. If you don’t life near any such shop try the internet. A good resource is Mountain Rose Herbs. This company sells herbs, teas, spices, natural health products as well as ingredients for homemade body care in bulk. You can order as little as 4oz and as much as 1lb of your favourite herb. They also sell floral waters and essential oils and ship world-wide. The company has also a strong commitment to organic and sustainable agriculture, which is invaluable if you want your body wash pesticide-free.

Get Your Equipment Together

I found a lot of people are put off  from making their own personal care products by thinking they have to work in a sterile environment. No, you don’t. To mix your ingredients, use clean stain-less steel mixing bowls, measuring spoons and a whisk. To heat them, just use an old stain-less steel pot. It’s as simple as that. Before you get started though, make sure you have the final container ready. You can choose a plastic squeeze bottle (make sure it’s ‘good’ grade plastic!) or an amber-colored glass bottle. What ever tickles your fancy. Herbal stores are hidden treasure troves when it comes to finding containers for homemade cosmetics. I have found many a thing there, from squeeze bottles, to lip balm containers and roll-on bottles. Again, if you don’t have one close by, Mountain Rose Herb is a great resource as well as many other places on the web. One final piece that has come in quite handy over the years is a set of small stain-less steel funnels to transfer your mixture to the bottle. These are available from any kitchen shop.

Get Cooking

This is the fun part! Always start off with your infusion or your floral water and heat it gently. Then add your oils and mix well. Take from the heat source and follow by adding the soap. Liquid is best here but if you’re using flakes, let them dissolve slowly. At this point your body wash will look nothing like the gel-like substances we are all used to. You can either keep it that way, or you can add a thickener. The most common and harmless one to use is Xanthan Gum, a polysaccharide secreted by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. It’s often available in powder form. Add it by sprinkling it onto your mixture and whisk it in until there are no clumps left. The mixture will thicken very quickly so be careful how much you add. Finally, add your essential oils for fragrance. If you are worried about the shelf-life of your body wash, you could also add a few drops Vitamin E T50 oil as an antioxidant, and a  few drops tea tree oil as antibacterial agent. One important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be accurate with amounts. Just be approximate, and after a few tries you will adjust your ingredients the way you like them best.

Use!

Now get showering! Believe me, the first time you will use your homemade body wash is actually quite a proud moment. To think that you just made something with a few yet good quality ingredients that for years you had to buy in a shop? It’s a great feeling! You will quickly decide what to change in your mix – more or less thickener, different essential oil, or you may even want to play around with adding colour. When it comes to homemade cosmetics, the world is your oyster, as long as you do your research on ingredients. And the best of it all? In the end you control what goes in it.

My Favorite Body Wash

Below is the recipe for my favorite body wash. It’s simple to make and the amounts are approximate. I personally tend towards dry skin but, as I said, you can change-up the ingredients any way you like. Enjoy!

1 cup (250ml) organic Floral Rose Water

1tbsp (15ml) Sweet Almond Oil

1tbsp (15ml) Shea Butter

1 cup (250ml) Dr. Bronner’s Unscented Castile Soap

1tsp (5ml) Xanthan Gum

2 drops Vitamin E

10 drops Essential Grapefruit Oil

10 drops Essential Sandalwood Oil

In a small stain-less pot heat the Rose Water gently. Add the Shea Butter to melt and the Sweet Almond Oil. Mix in with a whisk. Take from the heat and mix in your Castile Soap. Sprinkle some Xanthan Gum powder on top of the mixture and whisk in quickly. Add more depending on desired consistency. Add the Vitamin E and Essential oils and mix. Transfer into an opaque plastic squeeze bottle and keep in your shower. Keeps ~6 months.

What’s in it?

A Quick Guide To Finding Out What’s Hiding In Your Face Cream.

Coffee-and-MSDS

My grandmother always used to say that cold coffee made you beautiful. And while that’s a topic for another post, it’s a good metaphor for how we often take statements like that without questioning them. She had heard it somewhere in the past and then imparted her wisdom to me. And it’s my grandmother, so it had to be true, right?

Maybe – or maybe not.

In any case, it’s a phrase I still jokingly use with my husband since I am notorious for letting my coffee get cold. And being the scientist he is, he always questions that statement with a ‘Why?’. Sadly, he is the only one. The most common answer I get from other people is ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ And it is not just because he is a scientist, believe me. Many of my science colleagues don’t question what they use on a daily basis to groom themselves. I have asked several of them – and they were without a fail surprised by the question, let alone the thought behind it.

Methylchloroisothiazolinone vs Aloe Vera

Even before I became a biochemist, I was interested in what personal care products were made of. And not only because of cold coffee. The insistence with which the media on behalf of cosmetics companies tried to sell us the next best shampoo made me suspicious. I honestly felt no difference in my hair quality regardless of whether I used Timotei or Herbal Essence. In fact, becoming bored and disillusioned with the never-ending promises of silkier and softer hair, I began to experiment with homemade cosmetics in my late teens. I discovered that it was much more fun to tailor a cream or a shampoo to your personal tastes and play with ingredients, than use products whose components I knew nothing about.

The search for ingredients for my own creams led me to take a closer look at those in store-bought ones. Needless to say none of the outlandish sounding names on my mother’s face cream made any sense to me back then. Without readily available access to the Internet, research wasn’t quite as easy. So it wasn’t until my time at University that I got more of an idea what’s really in her face cream. No matter how fancy or expensive, Nivea or Clarins – the ingredients are always similar. And not in a good way.

The Internet Is Your Friend

Nowadays it’s much simpler to look behind the label of your body care products. Just type any of the ingredients into Google – and voila! Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) of any chemical are available online. They list the potential hazards of a chemical and the  amounts that could be dangerous in an easy-to-understand manner. Another great resource is Wikipedia. Information on almost all chemicals can be found there. However, not all entries list their hazards to health when used in the cosmetics industry.

A resource I have found useful and very accessible over the years is Skin Deep, a database by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The database, which was established in 2004, contains information on around 79,000 products and 2500 brands. And although a good base, it’s not updated regularly, and some of their data is limited and often not stringent enough.

Another source of information is the David Suzuki Foundation. David Suzuki has been engaged in environmentalism since the late 80s and founded the organization in 1990 as a solution-based group. The Foundation has a lot of material on cosmetic ingredients as well as other topics such as safe food and climate change.

But it is not just large organizations that can help in the quest of investigating your shampoo. FemmeToxic is a young Montréal-based organization dedicated to a youth-oriented campaign for safer cosmetics. Founded in 2009 the group is particularly focused on raising awareness amongst young women on the dangers behind cosmetics and personal care products. It is also a strong advocate for stricter regulations and labeling. Their website has easily accessible information on dangerous ingredients and their risks.

Resources like these allow us to finally break free from the propaganda machinery of the cosmetics industry. It allows us to do our own research on their latest not-to-miss-out-on ingredient, or how nanoparticles will truly affect our wrinkles. With the worldwide web at your fingertips it is simple and straightforward to find out what’s really in your shampoo or face cream – or if cold coffee could make you beautiful.