WEDNESDAY, May 26, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Fears that removing harmful trans fats from foods would open the door for manufacturers and restaurants to add other harmful fats to foods seem to be unfounded, a new study finds.
A team from Harvard School of Public Health analyzed 83 reformulated products from supermarkets and restaurants, and found little cause for alarm.
"We found that in over 80 brand name, major national products, the great majority took out the trans fat and did not just replace it with saturated fat, suggesting they are using healthier fats to replace the trans fat," said lead researcher Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of epidemiology.
Trans fats -- created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to make it firmer -- are cheap to produce and long-lasting, making them ideal for fried foods. They also add flavor that consumers like, but are known to decrease HDL, or good, cholesterol, and increase LDL, or bad, cholesterol, which raises the risk for heart attack, stroke and diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
The report, published in the May 27 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found no increase in the use of saturated fats in reformulated foods sold in supermarkets and restaurants, Mozaffarian said.
Baked goods were the only exception. Mozaffarian said trans fat was replaced by saturated fat in some bakery items, but they were the minority of products studied. Saturated fats have been associated in research studies with an increased risk of atherosclerosis, diabetes and arterial inflammation.
The big up-front cost to industry is reformulating the product, Mozaffarian said. "When industry and restaurants go through that effort, they are recognizing that, 'We might as well make the food healthier,' and in the great majority of cases they are able to do so," he said. "So, I think that there is greater attention to health than ever before, and industry and restaurants are trying to do the right thing."
Samantha Heller, a dietitian, nutritionist and exercise physiologist based in Fairfield, Conn., said reformulations that reduce trans fat in foods are good news for consumers.
However, consumers still need to read labels because many foods on the market are still undergoing reformulation, she said, and many others still contain trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils.
"Of concern is the continued and possibly increased use of tropical oils, such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils, as a replacement for trans fat," Heller said. For example, it is difficult to find a margarine free of trans fat and tropical oil that one can use for baking and cooking, she said.
Most people know they should reduce their consumption of saturated fats like butter and cheese, but may be unaware that tropical oils in many processed foods are also saturated, Heller said.
Heller suggests consuming healthy fats, such as olive and walnut oils, and unprocessed foods that don't contain tropical oils.
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., said removal of trans fat "from food is a well-justified public health priority."
This review is reassuring, he said. "In general, trans fat is coming out of food, and saturated fat is not going in. Even when it does, there is apt to be a net health benefit," he said. Some saturated fat is probably rather harmless, "but that's a subtlety that dietary guidelines are not yet addressing," Katz said.
Without intending to, this review raises an issue of importance to the field of public health nutrition, Katz added.
"We often focus on one nutrient at a time and risk improving one nutrient feature, while compromising others," Katz said. Until a reliable measure of overall nutritional quality is common practice for gauging the merits of reformulation, "reviews such as this will be required to verify that an apparent nutritional advance like trans fat removal is not offset by countervailing retreats," he said.
For more information on trans fat, visit the American Heart Association.