Health Beat – Cardiovascular Health: Trans Fat Update

By Mary Jane Dittmar

In “‘Sizing Up’ for Good Health” (Health Beat, August 8, 2003), the “enemy” of heart health, trans fat, was discussed. It has been known for some time that these fats, called “the hidden fats” by some nutrition/health experts, are detrimental to cardiovascular health. Finally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done something about it. As of January 1, 2006, food companies have had to list the trans fat content, if it is at least 0.5 gram per serving, in their packaged food products as a separate on the Nutrition Facts panel. Saturated and unsaturated fat contents are also listed.

This ruling applies only to packaged food products, not to foods served in restaurants. Still dragging its feet on the issue, moreover, the FDA has been extending the deadline for listing the trans fat content on the Nutrition Facts label for companies that file a petition for an extension. Therefore, be aware that a food may still contain trans fat even the trans fat content is not on the packaging. A smart rule to follow as a consumer concerned about your health generally is if something is not listed on the nutrition panel, assume that it is present in the product.

Among the proponents and advocates of the trans fat labeling has been the Harvard School of Public Health, whose researchers began warning of the dangers of trans fat in the early 1990s. Some segments of the food industry lobbied against the labeling.

Trans Fat Prevalent in Commonly Eaten Foods
Trans fat (also called trans fatty acids) is created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils (a process known as “hydrogenation”). Hydrogenation makes liquid vegetable oils more solid, which adds to the shelf life of the foods prepared from them and improves the foods’ taste, shape, and texture.

Trans fats are present in shortenings [stick (or hard) margarine], cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods, doughnuts, pastries, baked goods, and other processed foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Some trans fat also naturally occurs in small amounts in some meat and dairy products.

The FDA has estimated that at one point about 95 percent of prepared cookies, 100 percent of crackers, and 80 percent of frozen breakfast products contained trans fat. It has also estimated that the average daily intake of trans fat in the United States is about 5.8 grams or 2.6 percent of calories per day for individuals 20 years of age and older.

Dangers of Trans Fat
Research has suggested that consuming trans fat raises low-density lipoproteins (LDL-“bad” cholesterol levels), especially the small dense particles most damaging to arteries, and lowers high-density lipoproteins (HDL)”good” cholesterol levels, causing arteries to become clogged and increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. Trans fat also increases the tendency of blood platelets to clump and form potentially artery-blocking clots and stimulates inflammation, overactivity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

Researchers have estimated that replacing just 2 percent of energy (calories) from trans fat with unsaturated fat would decrease the risk of coronary heart disease by about one-third. Replacing partially hydrogenated fat in the diet with unsaturated vegetable oils would prevent at least 230,000 premature deaths from heart disease each year, and as many as 100,000, according to the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition (“Trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease: background and scientific review.”)

Health Preplan
Read nutrition labels before buying foods. As noted, be aware, though, that in the United States, the FDA allows a product that actually has up to a half gram of trans fat to be claimed as a “zero trans fat” food. In Canada, a product must have under 0.2 grams of trans fat to be labeled a “zero trans fat food.” Be safe; don’t rely only on the package’s nutrition panel. Look at the ingredient list. If you see items like “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “vegetable shortening,” the product has trans fat. Replace that product with one that does not list these ingredients, especially when if it’s a food you like to eat often. Eating just 5 grams of trans fat a day raised the risk of heart disease by 25 percent, according to some research.

Many manufacturers have decreased the trans fat content of their products. They include Promise and Olivio margarines, Frito-Lay snacks, and Tyson Foods (a frozen fried chicken product without trans fat). Read labels; there are many more products in the stores…

In restaurants, avoid deep-fried foods; many restaurants use partially hydrogenated oils. Some restaurants, like Legal Seafood and Ruby Tuesday no longer use partially hydrogenated oils. On the other hand, a large order of McDonald’s French fries contains about six grams of trans fat. In Denmark, however, where trans fat is banned, McDonald’s offers trans fat-free foods.

Wendy’s International Inc. (United States and Canada) has said that, in August, it will begin frying French fries and breaded chicken items with non-hydrogenated oil, a blend of corn and soy oil that has zero grams of trans fat per serving, which will cut trans fat in those menu items by 95 percent.

A consumer group is suing Kentucky Fried Chicken in an attempt to stop the company from frying its chicken in trans fat. Other fast-food chains are being pressured to do the same.

From the standpoint of health-preserving nutrition, it is important to know that even if a product is free of trans fat, it could still be harmful to health if it contains a lot of sugar, refined starch, or saturated fat. Minimize also your intake of saturated fat (animal sources such as fatty beef, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, milk, cheese, and dairy products made from whole milk) as well as some plant (tropical) oils, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils and cocoa butter.

AHA Recommendations
The American Heart Association (AHA) is recommending that trans fat be restricted to less than 1 percent of the total calories consumed in a day. (It also urges people to stop smoking and to engage in regular exercise.) The AHA has also issued the following guidelines for improved cardiovascular and overall health:

  • Limit saturated fats to no more than 7 percent of daily calories.
  • Get at least a half an hour of exercise a day.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables (not fruit juices) that are deep in color, such as spinach, carrots, peaches and berries.
  • Choose whole-grain, high-fiber foods.
  • Eat fish, especially oily fish like salmon and trout, at least twice a week. (Children and pregnant women should follow federal guidelines for avoiding mercury in fish.)
  • Consume fat-free and 1 percent fat milk and other dairy products.
  • Minimize calories from beverages, and avoid products with added sugars.
  • Add little or no salt to foods.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.

When it comes to sizing up/planning for good health, diet has to near the top of the list of considerations. It is the fuel that can fire up and maintain our physical apparatus or clog it up and cause us downtime or take us out of service altogether.

References, June 27, 2006, June 29, 2006; also see New England Journal of Medicine, April 13, 2006., June 19, 2006, June 8, 2006

Mary Jane Dittmar is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering magazine and and FDIC conference manager. Before joining the magazine in 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.

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