Trans Fatty Acids & Heart Problems | Heart Health Program

Date: 10/09/2006    Written by: Jon Barron

Counting Camels

On September 26th, the NYC Health Department proposed a phase-out of trans fatty acids from all New York City Restaurants. (Just last week New Jersey announced plans to propose similar legislation. The rush is on.)

For many years now, I've been calling unnatural trans fats the number one killer in our diets so I'm obviously ecstatic over this proposed legislation. Right?

Not necessarily. To be sure, I'm thrilled with the basic intent of the proposal, but I'm also very, very uncomfortable with the "camel" that comes along with it.

But first, what are trans-fatty acids?

Before the invention of trans fatty acids, we cooked food with lard, palm oil, or butter, etc., which are high in saturated fat. Researchers found that saturated fat (depending on type and amount) increases LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) which may increase the risk of heart disease. Therefore, manufacturers started to use the "healthier" vegetable oils in their food production. Because most liquid vegetable oils are not stable when exposed to heat and can go rancid easily, manufacturers began to "hydrogenate" liquid oils (a chemical process in which hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid and more stable) to help them better withstand the food production process and provide a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, a side effect of hydrogenation is that trans fatty acids are formed. For years, a handful of us in the alternative health community screamed about the dangers, but to no avail.

As I wrote in Chapter 6 of Lessons from the Miracle Doctors:

Food manufacturers love hydrogenated oils because hydrogenation makes those oils thicker, creamier, and more appetizing to the consumer. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also saturates the oils' fatty acids, changing them into trans-fatty acids. Trans-fatty acids are the number one killer in our diets, and a major contributor to:

  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease
  • Diabetes

Hydrogenated (and partially hydrogenated) oils are absolutely unnecessary and have no place in your diet or in any of the foods you eat. The number one dietary prescription from this chapter is to totally eliminate all hydrogenated oils from your diet. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds. Food manufacturers have put them in almost every food they manufacture.

"Oh be quiet; trans fats are unsaturated and therefore safe," we were told -- until recently.

“When partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was first used in foods many decades ago, it was considered safe.” (Walter Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H., Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health)

Within the last five years or so, the scientific community has "discovered" the dangers of trans fatty acids despite the fact they're unsaturated and put them in the news.

“Now that studies have demonstrated that partially hydrogenated oil is a major cause of heart disease, it should be phased out of the food supply as rapidly as possible and replaced with more-healthful oils.” (Dr. Willett)

Similar to saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) thereby increasing the risk of heart disease -- according to the cholesterol theory of heart disease. Some studies have also shown that a diet high in trans fatty acids may be linked to a greater risk of Type 2 Diabetes. (Note: Fully hydrogenated oil does not contain trans fatty acids. Instead, it contains more saturated fat.)

Note: some authorities (at least those that work for the shortening industry) are still insisting that in normal dietary amounts trans fatty acids are not much of a health problem.

Why restaurants?

As it turns out, it's not just manufacturers. Restaurants are also a major source of artificial trans fat. On average, Americans consume almost 6 grams of trans fat each and every day; a single fast food meal can contain more than 10 grams of trans fat. While the FDA now requires food manufacturers to list trans fat content on all nutrition labels, restaurant customers have no practical way to know whether food they eat contains artificial trans fat.

The NYC proposal in question goes well past notification, though. It will force restaurants to switch to oils, margarines and shortening that have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. For most restaurants, that means switching to inexpensive, long shelf-life, high Omega-6, polyunsaturated vegetable oils. The problem for restaurants is that all of their current recipes are based on the taste and texture provided by the trans fats they've been using. Switching to polyunsaturated vegetable oils will mean that all of their recipes will, in effect, have to be "reinvented." This accounts for some of their resistance, but not all.

Before proposing the new legislation, the NYC Health Department conducted a year-long education campaign to help restaurants voluntarily reduce trans fat from their menus. (In a little bit, we'll explore how restaurants were actually pushed some 30 years ago, in the name of health, to switch to high trans fat menus in the first place.) As part of the Health Department's education campaign, information was provided to every restaurant in New York City and training was provided to help restaurants and food suppliers make the change. Restaurants were surveyed before and after the campaign. While some restaurants reduced or stopped using artificial trans fat, overall use did not decline appreciably. In restaurants, where it could be determined whether trans fat was used, half used it in oils or spreads both before and after the year-long campaign.

  • "If New Yorkers replace all sources of artificial trans fat, by even the most conservative estimates, at least 500 deaths from heart disease would be prevented each year in New York City - more than the number of people killed annually in motor vehicle crashes." (Dr. Willett)
  • Carnegie Deli owner Sanford Levine said, "We have been using 100% Canola Oil for 20 years because it has a better taste and is better for the customers. It's easy to replace artificial trans fat, it costs the same, and the food tastes great. Our cakes and other baked goods are already trans fat free. If we can do it, so can other restaurants."

Given these comments, it's obvious that switching to non trans fat vegetable oils is both healthier than continuing to use trans fats and easy (other than having to rework recipes). So, if restaurants won't voluntarily do the "right" thing, then it hardly seems inappropriate to turn an education campaign into a legal mandate.

So what's my problem?

Given that I agree that synthetic trans fatty acids are deadly and should be absolutely eliminated from all diets, what's my problem?

Actually, I have three.

  1. The new program will be administered by people who historically have proven they don't understand health and diet. In fact, they're usually on the wrong side of the issue.
  2. It only addresses half the fat issue, while at the same time exacerbating the other half, thereby actually increasing health problems.
  3. And most dangerous of all, it lets the camel into the tent.

These people don't understand health and diet

Was it really only 10 years ago that this same community of health experts was still screaming about the dangers of cholesterol and insisting that people stop eating butter (high in cholesterol) and instead eat margarine (high in trans fatty acids)? Why yes it was!

In fact, it is largely because of these same health experts that so many restaurants now use hydrogenated oils. (They were told it was the healthy alternative by all of the so called experts.) Just think about it for a moment. The restaurants and manufacturers listened to the pleadings of the experts 30 years ago and followed their suggestions to abandon butter and lard and shift to high trans fatty acid margarines and shortenings. And now that they've done it, they're used to it, and they like it, they're being raked over the coals for it. What's the old saying, "Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me." No wonder there's some reluctance on the part of the restaurants to adopt the more recent "suggestions" of the health department -- along with the inconvenience of redoing all of their recipes.

And what's the City's response? "Well, if they won't adopt our suggestions for better health this time around, I guess we'll just have to force them to do it. We'll legislate it." I don't know about you, but I'd feel a whole lot better if these experts at least did a little "mea culpa" about the mistake they made when they encouraged everyone to use trans fatty acids in the first place. But that's like asking a politician to fess up... it's oxymoronic.

That said, weren't the health experts actually right, sort of, when they told us to move away from saturated fats to trans fats? Yes, trans fatty acids are bad, but isn't saturated fat even worse? And isn't butter high in saturated fat? Absolutely, and let's put that bugaboo to rest. The saturated fat in butter contains a significant amount of short and medium-chain fatty acids, which are easily converted into quick energy, not stored as cholesterol. Also, medium chain triglycerides (or MCT's as these saturated fats are called) have antimicrobial, anti-tumor, and anti-fungal properties -- not to mention, immune boosting properties. As I mentioned, they do not raise cholesterol levels. They do not lead to heart disease. In fact, one of the healthiest fats you can eat is virgin coconut oil, which is extremely high in the hugely beneficial MCT saturated fats, lauric and capric acid.

So no, they weren't actually right, and the "scientific" push away from saturated fats to trans fatty acids and bottled vegetable oils several decades ago is one of the great medical tragedies of the last half century.

And they're about to do it again.

Half the issue

Just as they misunderstood the cholesterol issue 30 years ago and led us into high trans fat diets, the newest batch of health experts is once again misreading the situation and leading us into a dietary wasteland. Yes, trans fatty acids are killers, but telling restaurants that they should substitute polyunsaturated vegetable oils for the trans fats they now use is no improvement. Why? Because as I also mentioned in Chapter 6 of Miracle Doctors, using high levels of highly refined Omega-6 vegetable oils is almost as deadly as using trans fats. The ideal dietary ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids is in the range of 1:1 -- 2:1, but in the modern diet, ratios of 20:1, 30:1, and even 50:1 are not uncommon. Mandating restaurants to shift from trans fats to even more Omega-6 vegetable oils will only skew that ratio further into error.The bottom line is that they still don't have a clue.

Don't let the camel in the tent

Ultimately, the biggest problem I have, though, is that this legislation, if passed, gets the nose of the government camel into our dietary tent. For those of you unfamiliar with the story:

One cold windy night, as a desert nomad lay down to sleep in his tent, his camel gently thrust his nose under the flap and pleaded. "Master," he said, "let me put my nose in your tent. It's cold and windy out here, and the sand is blowing up my nostrils." "By all means," said the nomad, "and welcome" as he turned over and went to sleep.

A short while, later the nomad awoke as the camel implored again, "Master, please, the sand is blowing into my eyes. May I put my face inside the tent?" "Yes, you may put your face inside the tent," responded the nomad.

And once again, a short while later, the nomad was awakened, "Master, the sand is blowing in my ears."

And again.

And yet again.

Finally, the camel said, "Master, may I not stand wholly inside? I keep the tent open with my body half in and out as it is." "Yes, yes," said the nomad. "Come inside. Perhaps it will be better for both of us." So the camel crowded in. And when the nomad awoke in the morning, he was huddled outside in the blowing sand; the camel had the tent to himself.

Time and time again government health experts have been on the wrong side of dietary issues. Just because they are on the right side of the trans fat issue doesn't make the precedent of allowing them to MANDATE what we can eat any less dangerous. Imagine if they had actually mandated 30 years ago that all restaurants HAD to serve you trans fatty acids instead of saturated fat. Or if tomorrow they mandated that supermarkets could no longer sell you butter or coconut oil. Or what if they mandated that all meat and produce had to be irradiated to keep it germ free.

And then, how far a step is it to ban you from using:

  • Megadose vitamins. (Wait a second, consumers in Europe are already looking at such a ban.)
  • Medicinal herbs of all kinds.
  • Or homeopathic medicines.

Yes, they are right about trans fatty acids, but do you really want any government agency mandating what you can and cannot eat, or the supplements you can and cannot use? Do you really want to let the camel into the tent tonight, only to find yourself living in a nutritional wasteland come the morning?

Camel Image

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