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Trans Fats - A Death Sentence

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The New York Times
April 16, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

IT'S never pleasant to learn that an artificial substance in your food might be ruining your health. This is what happened with trans fats when they were "discovered" in the food supply a few years ago, after a high-profile lawsuit against the makers of the Oreo cookie (laden with trans fats, who knew?) captured headlines nationwide.

The publicity pushed the Food and Drug Administration to require that trans fats be listed on package labels starting this year. Producers of cookies, cakes, crackers, frozen foods and margarines, all high in trans fats, thus had an incentive to eliminate them from their products. But Americans would be better protected if the F.D.A. would limit trans fats in all foods.

The problem with the labeling regulation is that it does not cover restaurant fare and other unpackaged food. This giant loophole was exposed by Danish researchers who collected and analyzed food from 20 countries, and whose results were published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers found that there are far more trans fats in McDonald's meals in the United States than in the same McDonald's fare in most other parts of the world.

Trans fats, which are basically a form of hardened vegetable oil, are a staple ingredient in our foods because they're cheaper than butter and they guarantee a long shelf life. Trans fats are also easily manipulated, able to give a Goldfish cracker its crunch, for instance, or make frosting creamy.

Trans fats are worrisome, however, because more than any other macronutrient in the diet they not only raise L.D.L., the so-called bad cholesterol, but also lower H.D.L., the good. (Saturated fat, in contrast, raises both kinds.) A daily intake of five grams of trans fats increases the risk of contracting heart disease 4 percent to 28 percent, various studies have shown.

Consuming that much trans fat is far too easy. The Danish study found that a large order of McDonald's French fries in the United States contains almost six grams of trans fats, while a large portion (10 pieces) of Chicken McNuggets serves up almost four grams. Eaten together, they deliver nearly 10 grams of a substance considered so unhealthy that the National Academy of Sciences concluded, in 2002, that the only safe amount of trans fats in the diet is zero.

In Denmark, that same combination of McDonald's fries and chicken contains less than one gram of trans fats. That is because, since 2004, the Danes have limited trans fats to no more than 2 percent of a food's fat content, by weight. Now, even the famous Danish pastry is virtually free of trans fats.

The virtue of Denmark's approach is that all food is covered, whether it is served in restaurants, cafeterias, airlines, hospitals or stadiums or picked up at a local coffee shop or deli counter.

The F.D.A. should set a limit of 5 percent here. Opponents of such a cap have argued that it is not worth the trouble, because the average American consumes so little trans fat. But the Danish study clearly shows that some — especially the sizable population eating fast foods — consume trans fats in dangerous doses.

Others have argued that the government should let consumers choose for themselves. But consumers can't make informed choices when so much of their food isn't labeled. And given that we are expected to monitor salt, high-fructose corn syrup, peanut traces and other potential dangers, a trip through the supermarket is already beginning to resemble taking the SAT.

A trans-fat limit of 5 percent is ideal, because it allows dairy and meat products that have some naturally occurring trans fats to slide in under the limit. We don't yet know if humans react differently to natural trans fats than to industrial ones, but it is reasonable to assume that our bodies could more easily digest butter and beef, which people have been eating for many thousands of years, than they could a synthetic product that has been used in food only since the 1920's.

The major fat and oil producers — Bunge, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland — are already in a position to roll out trans-fat substitutes in large quantities and, for the most part, at comparable prices. And restaurant and bakery owners have little to fear from a changeover. When I interviewed Danish chocolate factory owners, pastry makers and margarine manufacturers about removing trans fats from their products, their replies were uniform and blasé: it was really no big deal, they said. Getting rid of trans fats is an easy fix that could save, by conservative estimates, 30,000 lives a year in the United States — not such a fat-headed idea.

Nina Teicholz is writing a book about fats.

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