Fats in Perspective
April 30, 2007
by Lisa Katic, guest columnist
Fat, particularly trans fat, is one of the nutrition topics on everyone's mind today. Restaurants, hotels and even entire cities are trying to eliminate this unhealthy fat from their menus, and public establishments. This sounds like a decent thing to do in the name of health, however, we must not forget the bigger picture here.
Trans fatty acids (or TFAs), are under attack, due in part to overwhelming scientific evidence that links the consumption of TFAs to increases in plasma cholesterol levels. In 2003, the FDA published a final rule that amended the current regulations on food labeling to require that trans fats be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. Instantly, trans fats were elevated to a new status among the bad guys.
In theory, TFA elimination from the diet is not a bad idea, but is it achievable? In recent years, total fat intake has decreased in the US due to the educational efforts of various health and nutrition organizations. As a result, current trans fat intake is fairly low, hovering around two percent of total fat consumption. Saturated fats, like palm oil and coconut oil, are becoming popular trans fat substitutes. And saturated fats, which account for 12-14 percent of total fat consumption in the US diet, can, like TFA's, diminish heart health. The dangers of saturated fats are being swept under the rug, and with them, a potential health crisis.
Back to questions of whether the elimination of trans fats from the diet is achievable. The demand for hydrogenated oils in all food manufacturing and processing is about eight billion pounds a year. Currently, about four billion pounds of that is used in the food service industry, and four is used in all other food processing. With the negative focus on trans fat in the past several years, the need for alternatives in the food industry has become paramount. As a result, healthier oils like low linolenic acid soybeans are showing great promise. This soybean is developed using traditional breeding methods and eliminates the need for hydrogenation of the extracted oil. The challenge with these healthier oils is shear supply and demand. The supply of low linolenic soybean oil is projected to be 915 million pounds in 2007, which barely meets the eight billion pounds needed to supply the food service and food manufacturing industries. With that said, it is important to note that while the supply of healthier oils is slowly rising, imports of palm oils are rising at a more rapid rate. According to the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils, imports for palm oil alone in 2007 are projected to be 1.75 billion pounds.
So where does that leave us with eliminating trans fat in the diet? We basically can't right now! We can considerably decrease use of TFA's, but it is fruitless to think we can ban these fats when there are not enough alternatives. It will take a few years for the supply of healthier oils to match the demand. In the meantime, unfortunately, trans fats in the diet are being replaced with saturated fats; a less than ideal situation.
Luckily, consumer knowledge on the subject is increasing, according to a recent study done by the International Food Information Council (IFIC). About two-thirds of consumers surveyed in the study said they were somewhat or very concerned about both the amount and type of fat in their diet. The majority of these consumers were also aware of many different types and sources of fats. Unfortunately though, even with this knowledge, nearly half of consumers indicated they were not trying to increase or decrease the amount of the various fats that they consume.
As a dietitian, I think it is still important to educate consumers about total fat in diet, and that way consumers are sure to keep their trans fat intake at the recommended low. Eventually we won't be talking about the need to ban or eliminate trans fat in the diet because they won't exist in the food supply.
Lisa Katic is the principle of K Consulting and is a registered dietitian and expert in scientific and regulatory programs in a number of areas including nutrition, biotechnology and food labeling. She has appeared on all the major evening news programs including CNN, CBS, ABC and Fox, and has testified on Capital Hill on critical nutrition and food safety issues.