Trans fats nearing an expiry date

Amanda O'Brien
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced great news concerning the health of the nation last week: they intend to remove trans fats from their processed food supply.

The fats, which are currently “generally considered as safe,” will no longer be so. Any food companies still wanting to use artificially produced trans fats will have to scientifically prove that it is safe to do so.

Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, are essentially liquid oils which are converted into solid fats. Artificial trans fats, although discovered more than 100 years ago, initially became popular in the ’50s because of their versatility in foods. They extend the shelf life of many of our favourite crackers and cookies, and allow commercial deep fryers to repeatedly use oil for frying as the fats are very stable in high heat and break down less easily.

Artificial trans fats also come very cheap. They are normally found in foods like cookies, cakes, shortening and hard margarine, ready-to-use frosting, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough and coffee creamers, just to name a few. Trans fats also occur in small amounts naturally in some meats and dairy products, but they are not thought to be as detrimental to heart health as the artificially produced kind in many of our processed foods. They increase the levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Artificial trans fats may also reduce the levels of HDL, or healthy cholesterol, which is not a good thing. We want higher levels of this healthy circulator in our blood as it collects cholesterol and sends it to the liver to be broken down and removed from our bodies.

Simply said, artificial trans fats in food are thought to be dietary contributors to Canadian killers such as heart attack and stroke.

The Canadian government has now faced some pressure to follow suit with our neighbours. The Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Centre for Science in the Public Interest have called upon the government to take similar steps as the U.S. Health Canada’s own experts estimate 3,000 heart attack deaths could be prevented annually with tougher restrictions on artificial trans fats, and up to $450 million could be saved annually in related health-care and worker productivity costs.

While it is noted that many products on Canadian shelves have taken efforts to voluntarily reduce the trans fats in their foods — notably infant foods, soft margarine, french fries, potato and corn chips — the fats do still exist. We were the first country to make it mandatory to list trans fats on nutrition facts tables for foods, but there are still issues with how it is currently represented in foods.

The amount of trans fats can be labelled as “0 grams” in the nutrition facts table and the product may be labelled as “trans-fat free” if the food contains less than 0.2 grams of trans fat per stated serving size. It's been suggested that we limit the trans fats to less than one per cent of total daily calories.

So, for a given 2,000 calorie diet, that’s a suggested maximum of two grams per day. For nutrition fact tables, the serving size on these tables is just a suggested amount, and not necessarily the amount we are supposed to eat. That, in addition to the fact we have exaggerated portions, likely lends us to eating more trans fats than most of us realize.

Remember, too, that just because a product may show as having no trans fats, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically a good choice. We still need to consider the other nutrients such as total calories, sodium, sugars, etc.

In the meantime, how can one reduce artificial trans fat in the grocery cart?

Read the nutrition facts table and ingredient list to compare foods — especially foods mentioned above that often have lurking artificial trans fat. Choose products with 0 grams trans fat, and take it one step further to check the ingredient list to see if there is any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the product.

Canada food labelling laws don’t distinguish the two, and as mentioned earlier, there can still be small amounts of trans and saturated fats in a “trans-fat free” product. If using the percent daily value, try to choose foods with five per cent or less total saturated and trans fats (they will be combined in the table).

Amanda Burton is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website:

Organizations: Heart and Stroke Foundation, Centre for Science, U.S. Health Canada

Geographic location: Canada

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