Although the swine flu hysteria has settled down a bit, it’s still making headlines, as it was front page news here in the New York City area today. The amount of panic over this public health concern is surprising when you consider how most people continue to do things to themselves every day that are far more likely to be deadly. For example, most people are still eating one specific type of food that has been deemed totally unfit for human consumption. Now THAT’s scary.
Alas, fear-mongering and bad news sell, regardless of the true threat level, so the media has been pummeling us with stories about the flu pandemic (and I couldn’t help noticing that many health experts are now arguing that this is no worse than common strains of flu).
I wonder why the media doesn’t put this kind of effort and attention into more productive types of public health messages, like what to eat and what NOT to eat? And why don’t consumers respond with equal alarm when messages about our food are broadcast?
I find it odd the way people have been reacting to the flu news with fear and panic, even avoiding crowded public places like the gym and donning face masks when going out in public. Then they’ll remove these masks and proceed to smoke cigarettes and inhale food that’s potentially far more dangerous than any flu threat. Most people are literally eating poison every day without giving it a second thought.
Here’s the result: In the US alone, 1,700,000 new cases of diabetes, 233,600 diabetes-related deaths, 600,000 myocardial infarctions and 451,300 coronary heart disease-related deaths every year.
Trans Fatty Acids: The poison in our food supply that most people are STILL eating
Trans fatty acids (TFA’s) come mostly from the industrial partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, which alters the natural cis configuration of the oils to the trans configuration. Trans fats are not found in nature, with the exception of some ruminant-derived TFA’s which are found in certain dairy products (usually contributing less than 0.5%of total caloric intake).
TFA’s have been studied for decades, but were largely ignored until the past several years. Since 2006, TFA’s have thankfully received a decent amount of publicity when they were in the news regarding new food labelling laws and the banning of their use in restaurants in some states.
New Studies on Trans Fats
TFA’s are not new news, but there have been new studies published this year on the dangers of TFA’s, two of them just in the last month. If you think swine flu is scary, consider the following facts from the latest research:
* Four recent studies indicated 24, 20, 27 and 32% higher risk of myocardial infarction (MI) or CHD death for every 2% energy of TFA consumption isocalorically replacing carbohydrate, SFA, cis monounsaturated fatty acids and cis polyunsaturated fatty acids, respectively.
* Even consumption of small amounts of TFA’s (2% of total energy intake) is consistently linked to coronary heart disease.
If heart disease isn’t enough, the research says that TFA’s will:
* Increase belly fat (visceral fat) and body fat
* Contribute to insulin resistance
* Increase risk of type 2 diabetes
* Adversely affect circulating lipid levels (increase bad LDL cholesterol)
* trigger systemic inflammation
* disrupt glucose-insulin homeostasis
* cause metabolic dysfunction
* Induce endothelial dysfunction
* Adversely affect almost every cell in your body, including hepatocytes, adipocytes, macrophages and endothelial cells.
Some states have enacted legislation banning the use of TFAs in restaurants. It was big news here in New York. As of 2008, 11 cities and counties have adopted regulations to restrict TFA use in restaurants. However, industrial TFA use is still widespread and lots of people are still scarfing them down every day.
TFA intake in the United States still averages 2-3% of total energy intake, 4% in some countries and as high as 8-10% in certain subgroups (who eat large amounts of baked goods, fried foods, pastries, doughnuts, etc). The government recommended maximum is 1% of total energy intake (2 grams!).
Some experts say there is NO safe level of TFA intake. They’re THAT bad.
If Trans fats are so dangerous, why is their use so widespread?
Nutrition author Udo Erasmus put it this way: “TFA’s are a food manufacturer’s dream: an unspoilable substance that lasts forever.” TFA’s are cheap and for countless food products, they can prolong shelf life, allow easy transport, provide solidity at room temperature, and increase suitability for commercial frying.
Although most people have heard of TFA’s, perhaps scariest of all is the level of ignorance and inaction about TFA’s to this day.
A study published in the Journal of The American Dietetic Association found that in 2007, 73% of Americans knew that they increased risk of heart disease, compared to 63% in 2006. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that this increased awareness has not been enough to translate into behavior change. “Knowledge about food sources of fats remains low” says Robert Eckel, professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado.
According to the ADA, as of 2007, 79% of Americans could not name 3 foods that contain trans fats. 46% of Americans could not name any sources of trans fats on their own.
Public health messages have been raising awareness, but they haven’t been enough. “TFA’s are bad for you.” Ok, so now what? What you really need are some simple behavior guidelines and a list of foods to eat very infrequently if you eat them at all.
Here’s a good place for you to start.
4 Ways to Avoid Trans Fatty Acids
1. Read ingredients lists. The primary source of TFA’s is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. In particular, soybean, sunflower, cottonseed and palm oils are frequently hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Your first step then, is to read food labels on any packaged products and look at the ingredients list. If it contains hydrogenated oils, it contains TFA’s.
2. Watch for label loopholes. WARNING: Food companies are lying to you on their product labels to make you think their foods are TFA-free. The front of their package may say “ZERO grams of trans fats,” and yet there is hydrogenated oil listed in the ingredients. How could that be? There is a label loophole where the government allows companies to claim zero trans fats if there is less than a half a gram per serving. So the food companies sneakily manipulate their serving sizes until the servings are so small that the TFA content falls below the per serving limit.
3. Eat mostly foods that do not have a label. At the risk of stating the obvious, if you don’t eat anything that comes in a box or package with a label, then you won’t ever consume manmade TFA’s. If your diet consists primarily of fruits, fibrous vegetebles, root vegetables, beans, legumes, brown rice, unprocessed whole grains, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish and lean meats, you’re home free.
4. Avoid foods that contain TFA’s most of the time. TFA’s are commonly found in baked goods (bakery), fried foods and packaged convenience foods, especially:
* packaged frozen foods (breaded chicken, breaded fish, etc)
* corn chips
* potato chips
* packaged popcorn
* some breads
* french fries (fried potatoes)
* taco shells
* some salad dressings
* major food sources for American adults
In 2002 when I published the first edition of my ebook, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle, I warned my readers of the dangers of trans fatty acids. I was not the only one either. Years ahead of the 2006 law requiring trans fats to be listed on food labels and the 2007-2008 restaurant TFA bans, numerous health professionals were already warning people to stay away from TFA’s.
Not enough people listened, and no doubt, skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can be largely linked to these artificial fake food additives.
Whether public health issues like the swine flu turn out to be as dangerous as the media hype remains to be seen. But there is not a shred of doubt that this decades-old health menace – trans fatty acids – deserves the scary nickname they’ve been given: FRANKEN FATS – and a campaign for better education and more action is no hype.
As researchers from Harvard said, “A comprehensive strategy to eliminate the use of industrial TFA in both developed and developing countries, including education, food labeling, and policy and legislative initiatives, would likely prevent tens of thousands of CHD events worldwide each year.
Americans’ Awareness, Knowledge, and Behaviors Regarding Fats, Eckel RH et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Feb 2009 (2):288-296
Metabolic implications of dietary trans-fatty acids, Dorfman SE et al, Obesity, Feb 2009, 1-8. Cardiovascular and metabolism disease area, Novartis institutes for biomedical research, INc. Cambridge, Mass.
Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. Mozzafarian D, Eur J Clin Nutr, May 2009: 63 suppl 2S5-21, Harvard Medical School