There's this well-intentioned, usually good-looking, and always sympathetic main character, who suddenly has his or her life turned upside-down by a look-alike impersonator with a score to settle … or maybe just a mean disposition. Think of the German doppelganger legends … or of "Data" and "Lore" on Star Trek: The Next Generation … or of Dostoevski's The Double: Two Versions. And, of course, there's Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is the same tale - but told with a twist. You can find the "evil twin" theme across the whole range of human storytelling, from high-brow literary classics to the daytime soaps.
But keep reading. This "evil twin" story is no fairy tale.
Let's start with the fact that many molecules in nature, including many nutrients and microscopic components of the body, have a "handedness" (technically, "chirality"), just like your left and right hand. Both of your hands have palms and five fingers, but because of the way those components are put together - because of the way their parts are oriented relative to the body and to each other - they still aren't the same in structure or function. Likewise, the biological effects of many key molecules are defined not just by the sequence of the atoms that make them up, but their three-dimensional structure.
One example of a molecule whose "handedness" is important to its function is alpha-tocopherol. As most health-conscious folks know, the alpha-tocopherol found in natural foods is "d-alpha tocopherol." But the synthetic form found in many drug-store supplements is "dl-alpha." The molecules in d- and dl-alpha-tocopherol are made up of the same atoms, put together in the same order; the difference is that the atoms in the molecules of the dl- mixture are twisted in different directions in space, just like you can twist the shafts in a tinker-toy chain to get many different patterns from the same basic building blocks. These different "handednesses" are referred to as different "isomers" (EYE-so-mers) of the molecule.
Your body is designed in such a way that it can often make much better use of the natural isomer of a molecule than it can do with that molecule's synthetic look-alikes. Again, alpha-tocopherol is a great example: milligram for milligram, the d- form of the molecule is much better used and retained by the body than is the dl- mixture. Still, in the case of dl-alpha-tocopherol, there's nothing particularly dangerous about having those extra, synthetic isomers in your supplement: they're just weaker, less effective imitations of the real thing. In other words, the dl- form is not so much an "evil twin" as a geeky kid sibling.
In other cases, however, putting the wrong isomer into your body can actually harm you 8. An example that's becoming better and better known is trans-fatty acids. Again, most health-conscious people have heard of trans- fats, but few people understand what they are, or why they're dangerous. Found in large quantities in most margarines, but also sprinkled throughout the processed-food universe, synthetic trans-fatty acids are actually just unnatural isomers of natural polyunsaturated fats. When you expose the natural "cis-" isomer of a polyunsaturated fat to a great deal of heat and pressure (as is done in the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils), you can literally twist its structure, rearranging the molecule's orientation in space. Thus the synthetic trans- isomer is born.
Changing a fatty acid from the cis- to the trans- form is a matter of a simple rotation of orientation … yet it completely alters the effects of the fat on your body. The crucial difference between the natural cis-isomers of polyunsaturated fats and their synthetic trans-forms was shown in a large study of the diet and health of over 80 000 female nurses in the United States 9. This study found that the total amount of fat in the nurses' diets did not affect their odds of heart attack or of heart disease death. Instead, it found that it's the kind of fat that a person puts into his or her body that affects heart health.
When a woman in the study took 5% of the carbohydrate Calories in her diet, and replaced them with Calories from polyunsaturated fats in their natural cis- form, she cut her odds of a heart attack or a heart-disease death by an impressive 38%. But when a woman replaced just 2% of her carbohydrate Calories with trans-fatty acid isomers, she nearly doubled her risk of heart attack or death from heart disease (a 93% higher relative risk)! 9 Frighteningly, scientists studying the same group of women have found that a similar pattern exists for risk of diabetes: the natural isomer is protective, while the artificial isomer puts a person at greater risk.
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