Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Life Without Trans-Fats

The Washington Post asked, WHAT WOULD LIFE be without pies, frosting, french fries, chips, cupcakes, doughnuts, muffins, popcorn, cookies, crackers, and all manner of processed and packaged foods? in the article Trans Fat Nation.

The above article focuses on the New York City Department of Health's proposal to resturants to voluntarily stop serving food that contains trans-fats and eliminate the use of ingredients high in trans-fats like shortening and stick margarine.

While I applaud this effort and feel consumers have a right to know if the food they're served in a restuarant was prepared with ingredients that contain trans-fats, this blog entry isn't about whether NYC is on the right track or not. It's focused on the question that opened the article in the Washington Post...what would life really be like without trans-fats in our food?

Let me start by saying, not one of the above foods listed requires the cheap, trans-fat laden ingredients to prepare and taste great! Nope, not one.

Instead we allow this ingredient to continue to proliferate in our food system because we buy foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils. We have no one to blame but ourselves if food manufacturers continue to make foods with these fats if we're buying them! It's obvious that public policy makers are not keen on banning their use or mandating their elimination from our food supply.

Why do we seem to like these foods so much? Well, for one thing they last for what seems like forever when we buy them. Shelf-life is the driving force behind food manufacturers using partially hydrogenated oils.

Just how 'shelf-stable' are foods made with partially hydrogenated oils? Try this - go to Boston Market, buy yourself a corn bread. No, I really don't want you to eat it, but this little experiment is telling.

Bring it home and just leave it in the paper bag they put it in on the counter overnight. Check on it in the morning. Is it still moist? Does it appear to still be edible? See how many days it remains in such a moist and seemingly edible state. If you just leave it in that bag it will last (I have done this experiment myself) five days before it starts to get a bit dry. That's the "magic" of partially hydrogenated oils...shelf life is incredibly long, even for foods not packaged in a plastic wrapper.

But, here's the downside. While these man-made fats may extend the shelf-life of food, what they're doing to your body far outweighs this perceived benefit.

Man-made trans-fats increase your risk of heart disease, and the more you eat, the higher your risk. The National Academy of Sciences-Institute of Medicine declared in 2002 that there was "no safe level" of these fats for humans.

If that doesn't speak volumes about how bad these fats are for your health, I don't know what will.

And to answer the question posed by the Washington Post - Life would be a lot healthier if we eliminated these man-made trans-fats from our food supply!

Doing just that isn't as impossible as it seems. All the foods that are currently produced using partially hydrogenated oils can be prepared with healthier natural fats and oils. True, that means we won't have cookies that can last a year in the pantry - but do we really want cookies that can stay "soft and chewy" for a year, or more?

Denmark was the first country to effectively ban partially hydrogenated oils. Oils and fats are forbidden on the Danish market if they contain more than 2 per cent trans fat. The penalty for violation of the law is a fine and up to two years in prison. [Danish Exec. Order No. 160 of 11 March 2003.]

Denmark's food minister said: "We put the public health above the industry's interests."

The Danish Nutrition Council stated: "The results [of four population studies] suggest that the intake of trans fatty acids compared to saturated fatty acids per gram is associated with a 10-fold higher risk increment for the development of coronary heart disease. A negative effect of trans fatty acids on the human fetus and newborns has been further substantiated. The possible effect of trans fatty acids on cancer has not yet been settled. Data from epidemiological studies and from studies on the effect of insulin suggest that trans fatty acids increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Recent findings justify further studies concerning the effect of trans fatty acids on the development of allergic diseases in children, and of specific trans fatty acids' effect on body fat distribution and on insulin sensitivity."

So why do we, in the United States, continue to allow this ingredient in our food? It's not like the government and public policy makers are unaware of the detriments to health. In fact, they've been well aware for years!

As the Harvard School of Public Health review, Trans-Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease stated:

"By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually."

Let me reiterate that - 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year with evidence suggesting that number could be as high as 100,000 deaths per year! In my opinion, eating partially hydrogenated oils is like slow suicide! If the low estimate, 30,000 deaths per year is accurate, this means that 82-people per day are dying from ingesting trans-fats...scarier is the prospect that the higher estimate, 100,000 deaths per year - that's 274 people dying each day from the trans-fats in their food!

Yet our government's answer is to have manufacturers include the trans-fat content on the Nutrition Facts Panel, a mandatory requirement come Januray 1, 2006. However, that's without any warning to anyone buying a product with a high level of trans-fats in the product! And, products that contain 0.5g or less of trans-fat per serving, not accounting for the 20% margin of error allowed in labeling, can claim the product is TRANS-FAT FREE even though the product does contain some trans-fat!

I don't know about you, but I'm offended that the policy makers think I'll buy the fuzzy math that zero=0.5 or less, and may be higher when the allowed 20% margin of error is factored in.

In my world zero=zero.

The Danish government has shown that not only is it possible to mandate that food manufacturers eliminate a harmful ingredient, but that it is possible to make the same foods with ingredients that are better for us in terms of health in the long-term. Think of it this way - how in the world did anyone enjoy cookies, pie, frosted cake or other foods before partially hydrogenated oils became so popular with food manufacturers?

That's right - they made them with natural fats and oils. We can do the same today!


  1. I hear Brownies taste better without the trans-fats, either;-)

    Seriously, though--Regina--a question for you--trans-fats--are there any natural origins?

  2. i get dizzy, headeaches, lazy, nautious with eatng a good amonunt of foods with trans fats. Example ritz crackers, cheez its, graham crackers, some cereals, and much more