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Why it’s time to ban trans fat in Canada

Earlier this month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it was proposing to ban trans fats, a move estimated to save 7,000 lives and prevent 20,000 heart attacks each year. The question you might be asking: If trans fats are so dangerous, shouldn't Canada be phasing them out, too?

Industry-produced trans fats are formed through partial hydrogenation, a chemical process that renders liquid vegetable oils semi-solid and more heat stable. Partially hydrogenated oils make foods last longer on store shelves and add taste and texture to many crackers, cookies, pastries, muffins, snack foods, breaded fish sticks and fried foods.

(Low levels of naturally-occurring trans fats are found in dairy products, beef and lamb, but no evidence of harm from these sources has been identified.)

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What's good for the food industry, however, isn't good for consumers. A steady intake of trans fats raises LDL cholesterol, especially the small, dense LDL particles that are more damaging to blood vessels. Trans fat also lowers HDL cholesterol, the so-called good type that moves cholesterol from the arteries to the liver for disposal.

Compared to saturated fats in animal foods, trans fats have been linked with a 2.5- to 10-fold higher risk of coronary heart disease. There's also evidence that trans fat increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and triggers inflammation in the body, a contributor to numerous chronic diseases.

It's hard to say whether Canada will follow its neighbour's lead in getting rid of trans fat. Health Canada certainly knows trans fats are dangerous. In 2006, its own Trans Fat Task Force – made up of representatives from government, academia, industry and the public – recommended the government introduce formal regulations to protect the health of Canadians.

Instead, the government asked the food industry to voluntarily reduce trans fats to 2 per cent of total fat content in vegetable oils and margarine and 5 per cent in other foods over the next two years. In 2009, Health Canada abandoned its plans to enforce regulations and stuck with a voluntary approach putting the interest of industry before the health of the public.

Trans fat intake among Canadians has declined from 8.4 grams per day in 2005 to 3.5 grams in 2009. Health Canada's trans fat monitoring program, which released its fourth and final report in 2009, found many food manufacturers – motivated by mandatory nutrition labelling introduced in December, 2007 – had reduced trans fat to meet the targets.

Less progress was seen in high school, university, hospital and nursing-home cafeterias. And among grocery store foods, many coffee creamers and whiteners and commercial bakery products (desserts, cookies, muffins, etc.) were still high in trans fat.

Work under way at the University of Toronto suggests the number of foods meeting the trans-fat limits has increased since 2009. Good news, but there's still cause for concern. Many food manufacturers have not reformulated recipes and continue to produce foods that are very high in trans fat.

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Without national monitoring, there's no way to exert pressure on food companies to scrap partially hydrogenated oils. The only way to change this is to regulate trans fat in Canada.

There is no safe intake level of trans fats. That's why the U.S. FDA is phasing them out. Americans now consume roughly one gram of trans fat per day (down from 4.6 grams in 2003).

As for Canada, experts have estimated that regulating trans fat (to 2 per cent of total fat content in vegetable oils and margarine and 5 per cent in other foods) would avert more than 12,000 heart attacks and save $250- to $450-million in health-care spending per year over the next 20 years. So what are we waiting for?

While we do wait, read nutrition labels to find trans fat. Grams of trans fat are listed for one serving – specified on the label – of the food. The Daily Value (DV) for saturated plus trans fat combined is 20 grams (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). Foods low in these fats will have a DV of 5 per cent or less.

Foods than contain small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils can be labelled "trans-fat free" if they contain less than 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving and no more than 2 grams of trans plus saturated fat combined. But a trans-fat-free claim shouldn't give you license to eat as much as you want. Multiple servings of small amounts of trans fats add up. What's more, many of these products are highly refined, processed foods.

If a packaged food doesn't have a nutrition label, as may be the case for foods prepared in-store, scan the ingredient list. Partially hydrogenated oils and fully hydrogenated oils (which are not a source of trans fat) can be listed the same way on ingredient lists: as hydrogenated oils. Avoid buying products that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil or shortening.

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There's another way to cut trans fat from your diet: eat mainly home-prepared meals made with nutritious whole, unprocessed foods.

Where trans fat lurks

Many, but not all, food companies have reformulated products to remove partially hydrogenated oils. The following foods may still contain trans fat, so read labels.

  • Breaded fish and chicken
  • Bread sticks
  • Cake
  • Cake mix
  • Cookies
  • Coffee whiteners and creamers
  • Crackers
  • Croissants
  • Instant noodles
  • Margarine
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Muffins
  • French fries
  • Fried foods
  • Frozen pizza
  • Frozen entrees
  • Onion rings
  • Pancake mix
  • Pastries
  • Pie
  • Pie crust
  • Pudding
  • Ready-to-use frosting

Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct

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