Trans Fat Problem Solved – Think Again

June 25, 2013 in Foodland, Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve been telling friends for quite a while, to beware of the ‘zero trans fats’ on food labels; and have encouraged reading the ingredient portion of the label. In addition, I’ve encouraged them to avoid food products that list “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Of course most of us have known for a long time that the food processors are able to advertize no trans fat in their products if they could keep the trans fat below a half a gram per serving. Some of the food processors utilize this artifact created by the FDA to their advantage. The fact is that the hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil offers economic and efficiency benefits in processed food production that have attractive commercial properties for cooking, baking, and frying. I don’t know how prices compare, but I do know that textures and shelf stability are impacted by the use of fats containing trans fats.

A recent study researched by Harvard School of Public Health and reported in Preventing Chronic Disease, a CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) publication regarding the Trends in Trans Fatty Acids has found that only about half of the food companies have eliminated the use of trans fat which has a very strong association with adverse health effects including cardiovascular and metabolic risks. Many of us don’t live in New York City, where they banned the use of trans fats in restaurants in 2006; so we’ve got to think about our restaurant intake too, because that’s another area of trans fats sneaking into our diet. But today, I’ll just address trans fats in processed foods.

In essence the problem with the seemingly low trans fatty acids listed on the label is often with the serving size. Many of the products have the half gram serving of trans fat listed as zero allowed by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Some products are listed in tiny serving sizes; when multiple servings are consumed it takes the consumption past the goal of 2 grams per day maximum recommended by the American Heart Association. In addition, the problem raises its ugly head when multiple servings are used of different processed foods. It adds up to too much. The American public understood the risk and we thought we were rejecting the trans fats, but as so often happens, some food processors discovered ways to reduce but not entirely eliminate the harmful trans fats.

The most logical response to use of partially hydrogenated fats by the food processors is to refuse to buy products containing partially hydrogenated oil at all. The food processors, are of course, motivated by sales and dropping sales is the way to get their attention. One of the sad facts of this story is that it is possible to completely eliminate the use of partially hydrogenated oils; the main vehicle for trans fat used in industrially produced foods.

Some of the items that continue to be very strongly contaminated by trans fat are popcorn, pies, margarines and rolls; many of them still averaging more than 1.5 grams of trans fats per serving. How many servings of popcorn do you eat? An interesting finding is that some companies selling these products reduced or eliminated the trans fats, so we know that it is possible to produce marketable forms of the products without the trans fat. This really should cause some outrage. It’s ridiculous to risk health for such a foolish ingredient inclusion.

The researchers suggest that because trans fat consumption is harmful even at low levels, it emphasizes the need to reformulate or discontinue the products that continue to supply the trans fats. One of the statistics that helps us understand the risk is:  “a 2% absolute increase in energy intake (calories) from trans fat has been associated with a 23% increase in cardiovascular risk. We will still consume some trans fat if we’re not vegans, because there are trans fats in both dairy and meat products. We can solve the problem with dairy by choosing non-fat dairy. And we can limit what we get from meat, by choosing to have meat at fewer meals and choosing smaller portions.

This one’s pretty simple – just refuse to buy products that list ‘partially hydrogenated’ ingredients. You’ll be healthier and the food processors may eventually get the message if a lot of us stop buying their products, even the ones with crafty labels disguising the ½ gram (or slightly less) of trans fat.