Sunday, February 17, 2008

Let’s Talk About Trans Fats

Concerns about trans fats, arising primarily from the use of partially hydrogenated oils, started arising as early as 1988. In 1992 the Center for Science in the Public Interest reversed its position (it was encouraging substituting trans fats to minimize saturated fat consumption) to one which cautioned their use; and by 1994 a flood of studies with adverse findings eventually led the American Journal of Public Health to estimate trans fats were causing 30,000 deaths annually in the U.S. (a more recent study by Harvard nutritionists has upped this to 100,000). A real public relations problem for the food industry – it turns out trans fats are exceptionally profitable and convenient for food manufacturers. They can be made from cheaper, near inedible plants such as cotton to basically duplicate the effects and mouthfeel of expensive butter or lard and possess other significant characteristics. For one, since the created fat molecules are only distantly related to anything organic they last a long time, far longer than anything occurring naturally. And longer shelf life means less spoilage. For many years partially hydrogenated oils exhibited much greater durability when used as shortening in deep frying because of less susceptibility to rancidity. Their use even has cultural benefits since they're based on vegetable oils, a fact which avoids any conflict with animal fat dietary restrictions observed by such major religions as the Jewish Kashrut (kosher), the Muslim Halal, vegetarianism in Buddhism, and Hindu’s Adhimsa. You can see the food manufacturers' dilemma. Here they have this wonder product which creates food which customers’ love to eat at considerable savings but it has this one teensy weensy little problem – it sorta poisons them. What should they do?

Well they did what industry does when market and profitability is threatened. They fought tooth and nail against any restrictions on their use. Even so by the turn of the twenty first century public awareness of the hazard posed by partially hydrogenated oils had grown to unmanageable proportions. In September 2002 McDonald’s announced it would eliminate trans fats from its menu but then almost immediately recanted citing the need to ensure continued quality in taste. It may have just been a cynical public relations play - and they were forced to pay seven million dollars to the American Heart Association in 2005 for misleading advertising. Since trans fats have nothing to do with taste the about face was probably more a result of learning how much money changing away from partially hydrogenated oil was going to cost. There are some fast food burger chains like California’s highly successful In-N-Out who have never used them. Yet despite the economic penalties more and more food companies started switching away from trans fats. Even worse, legislation to restrict trans fat in manufactured food was growing. In 2003 Denmark became the first country to legislate restrictions on trans fat use, prohibiting trans fat content in excess of 2%. Canada, after an aborted effort in 2004 because of an election, passed its own legislation in January 2005. In the United States New York City became the first jurisdiction in the country when on December 5, 2006 it banned trans fats in all city restaurants effective July 1, 2007. KFC announced in October 2006 it would be switching over to trans fat free oil in all its Canadian and American outlets by mid-2007, and so joined Wendy’s and its 6,300 stores who had announced earlier their switch would be complete by August 2006. In face of such pressure even the behemoth McDonald's had to capitulate. On January 30, 2007 it announced it had finally selected its new deep fry formula and would gradually introduce it across the country with full implementation expected before the end of 2007 (now pushed back to early 2008). Jeez guys, hope it doesn’t affect your bonuses too much.

But if you’re breathing a sigh of relief your favorite restaurant has stopped poisoning you you can stop. Recently there have been accusations Wendy’s trans fats levels aren’t what they’re claimed to be. And, of course, there are all those foods sold in the supermarket. Since January 1, 2006 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has mandated packaged foods must include trans fat content on their Nutrition Fact labels. The FDA had proposed to put an asterisk in the % Daily Value column with a note that "intake of trans fats should be as low as possible” but under pressure compromised by leaving the space blank. It's true, take a look at a label the next time you’re shopping. Another major concession was allowing manufacturers to claim zero trans fat when the amount in a single serving is less than half a gram (in Canada the threshold is one fifth of a gram). It’s even worse when you consider it’s the manufacturer who determines how large a single serving should be. For example I picked up some crackers marked with a large green flash declaring “Zero Trans Fats” but on inspection discovered partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil was the third most used ingredient. I have to think Christie’s assertion a pitiful seven crackers constituted a single serving was a major reason the trans fat content was below the magic threshold. So beware and vigilant when you’re out shopping.

However results from new studies keep on rolling in and none of them are good. If becoming one of the 100,000 who are dropping dead from a trans fat caused heart attack every year isn’t enough of an incentive perhaps this six year study¹ from Wake Forest University will help. Two groups of monkeys were fed identical amounts of calories at what was calculated as a subsistence level.
She fed one group of monkeys a diet where 8% of their daily calories came from trans-fats and another 27% came from other fats. This is comparable to people who eat a lot of fried food, says Kavanagh. A different group of monkeys was fed the same diet, but the trans-fats were substituted for mono-unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, for example. After six years on the diet, the trans-fat-fed monkeys had gained 7.2% of their body weight, compared to just 1.8% in the unsaturated group. CT scans also revealed that the trans-fat monkeys carried 30% more abdominal fat, which is risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. “We were shocked. Despite all our enormous efforts to make sure they didn’t gain weight, they still did. And most of that weight ended up on their tummies,” says Kavanagh, who presented her findings at the American Diabetes Association meeting in Washington DC, on Monday. “This is walking them straight down the path to diabetes.” This is the first study to show such a dramatic result on abdominal fat, adds Dariush Mozaffarian at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, US. “The days of thinking about fats just as calories are over,” he says.²
If your health doesn’t do it for you perhaps your appearance will.

¹Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (2006, June 19). Trans Fat Leads To Weight Gain Even On Same Total Calories, Animal Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2008, from

²Why Fast Foods are Bad, Even in Moderation,, 12 June 2006

Two excellent sources of information about trans fats (and which provided the bulk of the facts used in this post) were Wikipedia’s article on trans fats and the website of

No comments: