Government Research on Trans Fat: Is Official Policy Keeping You In the Dark?

(Originally published Dec. 2, 2008 – Suite101.com)

US Government2; author michael morning; 2008

Due to numerous studies performed by USDA laboratories, the Institute of Medicine/National Academies of Science (IOM/NAS), and the National Cholesterol Education Program, which link trans fat consumption with Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), the FDA finally passed legislation in 2003 requiring food nutrition labels to list trans fat values by January 1st, 2006.

And they’ve been patting themselves on the back for it ever since.

Unfortunately, the legislation is full of loopholes and ignores a great deal of accumulating evidence that trans fats are far more harmful than most agencies are willing to let on.

MORE WORK NEEDED

Neither the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – of which the FDA is a part – nor the USDA have yet to officially weigh in on trans fats. In January of 2005 they released their 6th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a joint report the two agencies produce every five years to offer advice to consumers on official governmental dietary recommendations.

Despite being five years in the making, however, the 2005 guidelines were glaringly lacking in any specific recommendations on trans fats.

The fact that these two major governmental organizations can’t seem to get their act together means that nutrition labels likewise show a lack of specific recommendations. Instead of daily allowances, the labels merely display a generic listing of trans fat grams per serving.

This leaves the consumer wondering: What is an acceptable daily intake…2 grams? 4 grams? 0? So far, no one is saying as a matter of official policy.

Finally, an even more unfortunate aspect of the study is built-in compromises with the food industry. At the press conference covering the release of the 2005 guidelines, former secretary of the HHS Tommy Thomson tellingly revealed that, “Every report that comes through the federal government has compromises put in.”

DISSENTING VIEWS

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on science and public policy. In 2005, the NAS published results that found trans fats to be far worse than saturated fats in their link with heart disease and concluded that there is no safe level for trans fat consumption. However, they stopped short of calling for a total ban due to worries that foregoing foods with naturally occurring trans fats would lead to nutritionally poor diets.

Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also walked a fine line in stating the dangers of trans fat without calling for an outright ban. In 2003 the organization recommended that trans fats be limited to less than 1% of total calories consumed – a figure even the American Heart Association (AHA) agrees with.

These recommendations, however, make the mistake of confusing naturally occurring trans fatty acids with man-made trans fats produced from the process of hydrogenation. Studies by a number of organizations, including the US National Dairy Council and a 2006 report published in The New England Journal of Medicine (among others), confirm that naturally occurring trans fats display less of the negative health effects than their synthetic counterparts.

RESPONSE BY INDUSTRY

As would be expected, the processed food industry has worked against trans fat bans initiated by consumer lobby groups and watchdog organizations. One frequently offered protest is that it’s too difficult to measure amounts below 0.5g (500mg).

This notion clearly flies in the face of legislation by Health Canada (Canada’s equivalent of the FDA), which passed legislation requiring trans fats to be included on their nutrition labels – and only values below 0.2g (200mg) could be considered as “0g trans fat” for certain foods.

The idea that Canadian manufacturers can somehow measure trans fat amounts lower than 500mg, but U.S. companies have difficulty with it, rings a little hollow. Likewise, the fact that the Canadian government instituted labeling requirements that are twice as restrictive as those in America – and have been considering banning them altogether since 2004 – should incite every American to action.

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