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Taking Aim at Trans Fatty Acids

U.S. to require food labeling for these health threats

MONDAY, Jan. 13, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Just as most Americans are finally digesting the nutrition labels appearing on all processed foods, the Food and Drug Administration sits poised to add another term on the back of your favorite box of cookies or package of lunch meat.

That term is "trans fatty acid." And some time early this year, the FDA is expected to start requiring that manufacturers include these levels along with listings for other types of fat content already mandated on food labels.

"This is a good thing, because it will provide consumers with more information about the foods they are consuming so they can make better food choices," says Cindy Moore, director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Trans fatty acids or -- "TFAs" -- are a type of saturated fat that occurs naturally in small amounts in foods like beef and dairy products.

But trans fatty acids can also be the end result of a manufacturing process that turns healthy liquid fats -- like vegetable oil -- into unhealthy solid fats needed to produce many foods, particularly baked goods and snacks. As such, they show up in a wide variety of products you commonly eat, often in large amounts.

"If you eat any commercially prepared foods, particularly baked goods, chances are you are getting a fair amount of TFAs in your diet," Moore says.

This matters, she adds, because studies now show that trans fatty acids can increase some specific health risks -- particularly the risk of heart disease.

"The higher your intake of trans fatty acids, the higher your ratio of LDL (bad) cholesterol to HDL (good) cholesterol. And that plays out in terms of the risk for heart disease," Moore says.

But it's not only your heart that can suffer. The very latest studies show that high levels of trans fatty acids can also increase your risk of Type II diabetes.

In fact, all things being equal, the negative effects of TFAs on your health are even greater than those of the much-ballyhooed saturated fats -- the traditionally bad, "heart-hurting" fats found in foods like butter and cream.

"No high fat foods are good for your health. But if you have to choose between a food high in saturated fats and one high in trans fat, the one high in trans fat would probably be slightly worse for you in terms of your heart health," says New York University nutritionist and dietitian Samantha Heller.

But how much trans fatty acid is considered too much? In an effort to answer this question, the FDA asked the National Institute of Medicine to study the issue and come up with a number that could make its way onto food labels.

That report, issued last fall, found that no level of trans fatty acids is considered "safe."

Since trans fatty acids are present in so many foods, the institute's report also concluded that eliminating TFAs from your diet would cause such a dramatic change in your eating habits that it could lead to deficiencies of needed nutrients.

The suggested compromise: Strive to keep trans fatty acids as low as possible. And in this respect, the new labels can help.

"If we look for foods that are low in TFAs and low in saturated fats, we are definitely making smarter food choices," says Heller.

Although the TFA regulation is likely to become mandatory sometime in the next few months, it could take up to 15 months before the new labels begin appearing in stores.

In the meantime, Moore says you can still make smarter food choices by reducing your intake of any foods that list "partially hydrogenated oils" in their ingredient list.

"Most partially hydrogenated oils are trans fatty acids, and the less we consume of these ingredients, the better off our heart and our health will be," she says.

Currently the FDA-required food labels list total fat content, along with breakdowns for the following types of fat:

  • Saturated fats -- found in animal meats, including beef, veal, lamb and pork, as well as poultry, butter, cream, whole milk, and whole cheeses. Plant sources include coconut and palm kernel oil and cocoa butter.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (the "good" fat) found in plant oils such as safflower, sesame, sunflower, corn and soybean, as well as nuts and seeds.
  • Monounsaturated fats (another "good" fat) found in canola, olive and peanut oil and avocados.

According to the American Heart Association, choosing foods high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat may help lower your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated fat.

What To Do

For more information on healthy eating, visit The American Dietetic Association. You can also find specific information on fat content and its dietary effects by visiting the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Cindy Moore, M.S., R.D., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, and director of nutrition therapy, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Cleveland; Samantha Heller, R.D., nutritionist, Joan & Joel Smilow Center for Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention, New York University Medical Center, New York City; U.S. Food and Drug Administration Federal Register, Nov. 15, 2002
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