Trans Fatty Acids Update
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | April 28, 2006

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the primary cause of death in North America. Preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that just over 650,000 men and women died from heart disease in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available (1). That represents a decrease of about 6% from 2003 or close to 42,000 fewer people. Remember this number.

Trans fatty acids are used in the production of refined products such as margarines, baked goods, cereals, and many other products; for more information about what trans fatty acids are, please see the May 24, 2005 Newsletter “Trans Fatty Acids.”

Effective January 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated that the amount of trans fatty acids (TFA) be listed on nutrition labels with a few minor exceptions. Most manufacturers took the initiative to find a replacement for TFAs so they could list 0 grams TFAs on the labels. There are two things you should know.

First, if a product has less than 0.5 gram TFAs, 0 grams can be listed on the label according to the FDA guidelines. That means it could have up to 4.4 calories from TFAs per serving and still be listed as 0 grams. The reason is that there are no accurate tests commercially available that test at levels lower than that amount. So keep in mind that zero doesn’t really mean zero.

Second, for a product to list that it is “Trans Fat Free” on the label, it must have less than 0.5 gram TFA and less than 0.5 grams saturated fat. This is important because most people select foods on the basis of perceived health benefits. When you buy processed foods, trans fat free foods are the best choice you can make for your heart.

Replacing TFAs
This was no easy task according to the report in Food Processing, a food-industry trade magazine (2). TFAs not only provide shelf stability, they also contribute to the texture and taste of manufactured food products. It’s very tricky to replace TFAs effectively. Not only do ingredients have to be modified, the entire process may have to be changed. The article concluded that none of the reformulated products really matches the original.

But there’s more. Some of the products are using oils from genetically modified soybeans. While this really isn’t as big a deal as has been made out by some health websites, people may perceive this as less than desirable. All of these changes come at a high price--millions of dollars.

Health Benefits?
In comments made before the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, gave an estimate of the health benefits of the FDA-mandated changes in TFA labeling. The CDC estimates that cardiovascular disease will be reduced by 600 to 1,200 cases, with a reduction of 250-500 deaths per year after three years. Not per day. Not per month. Per year.

While every death is tragic, this government-mandated labeling change seems marginal at best, especially considered in light of the reduction of U.S. CVD deaths by more than 42,000 from other reasons such as better medical procedures and medications. We know it isn’t from lifestyle changes yet--the rate of obesity continues to rise.

Here’s a thought: Let’s put that money into a public-health education program that focuses on teaching people to eat more vegetables and fruits every day. The real solution isn’t better junk food; the solution is eating more of the real foods that are good for you.

  1. Miniño A, et al. Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2004. Division of Vital Statistics. Centers for Disease Control.

  2. Kathy Shelke. Just Under the Deadline. Food Processing. Feb 2006; 67(2):41-48.

  3. Scott Gottlieb, MD, Deputy Commissioner for Medical and Scientific Affairs of the FDA. Remarks made at the Grocery Manufacturers of America Annual Meeting. November 30, 2005.
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