Should we regulate the amount of trans fats contained in the food we eat? A Canadian government task force on trans fats is recommending that all vegetable oils and spreadable margarines have the trans fat content limited to 2% of the total fat content and all other foods be limited to a maximum of 5% of total fat content. These new regulations would decrease the average trans fat intake by at least 55%.
What are trans fats? Fatty acids in foods are made up of polyunsaturated (like safflower oil, sunflower oil and corn oil), monounsaturated (like olive oil, peanuts, and avocados), saturated (like coconut oil, palm oil, butter and cheese) and trans fats (like margarine and shortening). Saturated and trans fats are linked to coronary heart disease. The majority of trans fats are produced by the food industry when it uses a process called hydrogenation to turn liquid vegetable oils into semi-solid products. This process hardens and stabilizes the oils, enhances the flavor and extends the shelf life of food products. These trans fats also break down less easily which makes them more suitable for frying. The majority of trans fats are found in foods made with shortening, margarine or partially-hydrogenated oils and in baked goods like crackers, cookies and donuts and in fried foods like french fries and fried chicken. The trans fat content of some of these foods can be as high as 45% of the total fat in the food product. Trans fats also occur naturally at fairly low levels in ruminant-based foods like dairy products and beef and lamb.
Are trans fats worse than saturated fats? There is a lot of evidence linking both trans fats and saturated fats to coronary heart disease. Trans fats appear much more dangerous because metabolic studies have shown that they increase the blood levels of our bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease the levels of our good cholesterol (HDL). Saturated fats appear less damaging because they elevate the total cholesterol levels – both bad (LDL) and good (HDL). The Harvard School of Public Health found that removing trans fats from the industrial food supply could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and cardiac deaths each year in the US. The findings are published in the April 13, 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Government organizations around the world have started to act to resolve the problem. In 2002, the US National Academies of Science recommended that trans fat consumption be kept as low as possible. In 2003 the World Health Organization recommended that trans fat intake be limited to less than 1% of overall energy intake. Also in 2003, Denmark set an upper limit on industrially produced trans fats in foods, limiting them to just 2% of the total fats in foods. They excluded meat and dairy products. In 2005 Canada required mandatory labeling of trans fats in packaged foods. The US followed in 2006 with a mandatory labeling for any foods containing 0.5 grams or more of trans fats per serving.
Is mandatory labeling sufficient? Shouldn’t we let informed consumers self-regulate the amount of trans fats they consume? Once the consumer understands how harmful trans fats are and that as little as 5 grams per day can lead to heart disease, then mandatory labeling will force the food industry to reduce the amounts contained in food products much faster than a bunch of government regulations, However what about restaurants and the fast food industry? Here is where the Canadian government task force recommendations are probably a good thing. Consumers do not know how much trans fats there are in french fries, deep fried chicken and baked goods. Therefore we should adopt the recommendation from the June 27th, 2006 final report of the Trans Fat Task Force that states – “For all vegetable oils and soft, spreadable (tub-type) margarines sold to consumers or for use as an ingredient in the preparation of foods on site by retailers or food service establishments, the total trans fat content be limited by regulation to 2% of total fat content.” This will allow us to eat restaurant and fast food industry foods with the knowledge that the trans fat content is limited to 2% or less.