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Please Pass The Science - The Secret of Margarine
by Scott Berk

Laura, from Hoboken, New Jersey, asks:

"Just what IS partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and should I fear it?"

A good question. Perhaps too good, for within its explanation lies a fact so scary, so unacceptable, that most people run screaming from the room upon learning it. But knowledge is a burden. One should never turn one's back on the truth, no matter how shocking; for the ability to discern truth from lies, fact from fiction, reality from rumor, is what makes the human race different from the base creatures with which we share our world. In this age of the global village, with instant access to all the information we could ever want, I fear that most people choose to walk the less cluttered path of ignorance. The freedom to know how the world works is within our collective grasp - do not shun it! Society will never be able to advance until its people are ready to endure the pain of the fire of knowledge! But I digress...

Do not scream. Remain calm. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is the main ingredient in both margarine and Crisco. That's right:


Now, before you decide to swear off maragrine for good, consider yourselves lucky. When margarine first appeared on the market long ago, the butter lobby was so powerful that they required margarine to be a very unappetizing brown color. Now, of course, it is the same color as butter. The fact remains, however, that if you were to take away the salt, artificial color, and artificial flavoring in margarine, you'd be left with our good friend, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a.k.a. vegetable shortenting, a.k.a. Crisco. If you can accept this and still eat margarine, then good for you, for, as you will see, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is NOT bad for you, and has no cholesterol (unlike butter). The fact that it is so akin to Crisco should only ease your fears about that harmless, but often maligned, household product. But what IS it?

Well, it is vegetable oil that has been partially hydrogenated, of course. Other than stating the obvious, what does that tell you? In chemical terms, hydrogenation is the process of chemically adding two hydrogen atoms to a carbon-carbon multiple bond. Vegetable oils are made up of long carbon chains with several carbon-carbon double bonds along each chain. For reasons too complicated to go into here, the double bonds make the chemical a liquid at room temperature. By adding hydrogen, some of the double bonds are changed to single bonds, which cause the compound to solidify. The whole process is merely a way to make the oil of various plants into a solid that can be spread on toast or on a baking pan. No scary toxic chemicals are added. No cruel misanthropic mad scientists are wringing their hands in the corridors of power. Just a simple way to convert an oil to something more usable. So, the next time you're enjoying that rich, buttery taste without all that nasty stuff that comes with butter, be sure to thank your local vegetable for its oil and your local chemists for their hydrogenation. And, of course, you can fully blame the tasty splendor (not to mention that great non-stick surface) on SCIENCE!

Addendum - 2000may14

NEWS FLASH: Margarine might be bad for you. See the gripping scientific exchange here!

Will the sun ever burn out? How do neon lights work? Is it true that SPAM and glycerin form a dangerous shock-sensitive explosive? Send in your burning science questions to "Please Pass The Science" in care of this magazine.

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