With the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) announcing mandatory labelling of trans fatty acids from January 2006, the issue of their effect on health is in the public eye as never before. The USFDA stressed that educating the public over the health problems associated with trans fats would go hand-in-hand with the labelling initiative. But Hugh Westbrook has discovered that apparently trustworthy information is not as accurate as it may first appear.

The background on trans fats (known in the UK as hydrogenated fats) is hugely complicated. Most trans fats found in food today come from a chemical procedure which turns liquid vegetable oils into solid fats, a process known as hydrogenation. These trans fats are found in some margarines and are often added to biscuits, snacks and fastfoods to lengthen their shelf life. In addition, a small amount of trans fats occur naturally in some meats and dairy products, although some experts believe that they do not pose the same health risks as the hydrogenated variety.

The objection to trans fats from a health point of view is that research suggests that they increase LDL cholesterol, which clogs arteries and can consequently lead to an increase in cholesterol-related illnesses, such as heart disease. While saturated fats also raise LDL cholesterol, research has shown that trans fats also lower HDL cholesterol, making them more likely than saturated fats to cause heart problems. HDL cholesterol helps to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood.

Seeking to educate on fat

The USFDA stressed that part of the education programme needed is to demonstrate the relationship between saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, so when consumers look at a label they can understand the relationship between all the fats in a product and their effect on overall health.

Prior to the USFDA announcement, there had already been much trans fat activity internationally. Masterfoods has recently acted to remove trans fats from Mars and Snickers bars, having been working with suppliers for over a year to find an alternative to the hydrogenated fat in the nougat of Mars and Snickers. "We managed to make the changes without affecting the taste our consumers expect," the company told just-food.com.

Elsewhere, Denmark's government has announced that it will reward companies which reduce their levels of trans fats, while McDonald's promised to change its cooking oil to reduce trans fats, although later delayed the move.

Lawsuit against Kraft/Nabisco

But it has been in the United States where trans fats have received the most publicity. Earlier this year, California-based lawyer Stephen Joseph, who has founded BanTransFats.com, Inc., achieved notoriety by taking Kraft/Nabisco to court in an effort to stop the company marketing Oreo cookies to children in California until the trans fats are removed. The lawsuit was withdrawn quickly when the subsequent publicity helped to bring the issue of trans fats into the public domain.

Joseph told just-food.com that he would not end his campaign until trans fats had been removed from every product where they currently appear. "It's putting in a dead ingredient, it's like putting in plastic," he said. "All I want to see is an alternative."

As a result of the lawsuit, an information page about trans fats appeared on Kraft's Nabisco website. However, this is the area where the USFDA will have to be careful - it will be vital to ensure that such information is accurate and it may need to police the Internet to ensure people remain well informed.

The nitty gritty on trans fats statements

Kraft's Frequently Asked Questions includes the following: 'Q3. Is trans fat bad for you? A recent comprehensive National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study concluded that trans fat is similar to saturated fat in its effect on blood cholesterol. The NAS study recognises that trans fats are "unavoidable in ordinary diets." It also recommends that trans fat consumption be "as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet."'

The NAS published a letter report on its findings in the middle of last year and a full report on fat later in the year. Having reviewed the findings, they were found to disagree with the information put out by Kraft.

Taking the second point first, the recognition that trans fats are 'unavoidable' in ordinary diets is made unhappily by the NAS. It says that to avoid them completely would require 'extraordinary changes in patterns of dietary behaviour. Such extraordinary adjustments may introduce other undesirable effects.' This is the reason that consumption as low as possible is recommended, even though the evidence suggests a 'Tolerable Upper Intake Level of Zero'.

More seriously, the Kraft statement does not only not answer the question it asks itself but also implies that the effects of saturated fats and trans fats on cholesterol are virtually the same. The NAS report says: 'similar to saturated fatty acids, there is a positive linear trend between trans fatty acid intake and LDL cholesterol concentrations', but it concludes that research demonstrates that 'dietary trans fatty acids are more deleterious with respect to coronary heart disease than saturated fatty acids'. There is clearly a similarity, but in order to tell the proper story, as the USFDA would like to see, a statement 'trans fat is similar to saturated fat in its effect on blood cholesterol' is surely insufficient. A statement explaining the differences is needed.

Data "unclear"?

When just-food.com raised the issue of the accuracy of the statement with Kraft, a spokeswoman said: "Our website content accurately reflects the content of and the statements made in [the] NAS report. Kraft very specifically states on our site that 'trans fat is similar to saturated fat in its effect on blood cholesterol' as those last three words represent an important qualifier and accurately reflect the findings of the NAS."

Expert Analysis

The UK Food Labeling Market
Label information on food and drink products enables consumers to choose appropriate products for their needs, and to store and consume them safely. The impact of factors such as the dramatic changes in the food supply system over recent years, advances in technology, food safety scares and the growing interest in diet and health means that today's consumers are far more discerning about what they eat. This has created pressure for more and more information to be given on labels, to enable informed consumer choice. Yet the sheer amount of information and the way it is communicated can be confusing to consumers. Find out more here.

 

As for whether trans fats are indeed more likely to cause heart disease than saturated fat, the spokeswoman added: "It is our understanding that rather than being a conclusion of the report, it notes that a concern was raised by some of the data, but since the studies weren't properly adjusted for saturated fat intake, the data are unclear."

This last point is very interesting. Following on from the NAS conclusion cited earlier that 'dietary trans fatty acids are more deleterious with respect to coronary heart disease than saturated fatty acids', the spokeswoman quoted the following passage as back-up: 'Because these protective studies were not adjusted for saturated fat intake, there is confounding interpretation in that individuals in the United States consume five to six times the level of saturated fatty acids than trans fatty acids'.

Kraft drawing on obsolete version of NAS report

The problem with using this statement as back-up for statements on the Kraft website is that it was never included in the final NAS reports. The NAS told just-food.com that the sentence was only included in an older print version of the letter report issued last year, and was taken out of the final reports because of reviewer concerns regarding various aspects of the report.

In any case, it seems that Kraft's interpretation of the findings is at variance with the FDA interpretation. An FDA information release to coincide with the news of the labelling regulation contains the following: 'Q: Do saturated and trans fats affect blood cholesterol in different ways? A: Yes. Like saturated fat, trans fat also raises the low density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol in the blood. But, unlike saturated fat, trans fat lowers high density lipoprotein (HDL or "good") cholesterol in the blood. An elevated LDL cholesterol increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease.'

At the press conference revealing the new labelling laws, Kraft was praised for its recently announced initiative to reformulate products to help with obesity. The company is undoubtedly committed to this, and there is no suggestion that the information about trans fats on its website has been deliberately distorted. However, just-food.com's examination has shown the difficulty of finding reliable information on the Internet, especially when it appears at first glance to be trustworthy.

With education of the problems of trans fats becoming ever more important, people will look to the food companies they trust to provide them with information that they feel they can rely on, and all companies have a duty to ensure that they interpret research correctly and supply the appropriate information to their customers. The USFDA will also have to ensure that not only is its own information accurate but also that other information being fed to consumers, by whatever method, does not undermine the overall message.

Related links you may find useful:

Stephen Joseph's Ban Trans Fats site

Nabisco - update on trans fats halfway down home page on the left-hand side

USFDA

USFDA's Q&A release on trans fats

National Academy of Sciences report page

National Academy of Sciences