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The Canadian Trans Fat Task Force was formed in early 2005 to provide the Canadian Minister of Health with recommendations and strategies to effectively eliminate or reduce processed trans fats in Canadian foods to the lowest level possible. The Task Force was co-chaired by Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, which submitted their 120-page report in June of 2006.
The report provides a good look at the strategies the vegetable oil and food processing industries have developed in order to maintain market share and profits in the teeth of mounting evidence that trans fats pose serious health problems. The food manufacturing and food service sectors as well as the oil seed producers and processors were heavily represented on the Task Force, including representatives from the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, Bunge Canada, the Baking Association of Canada, Centre for Science in the Public Interest, the Vegetable Oil Industry, Canada Bread, and the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association. In addition, the Task Force heard testimony from representatives of Pepsico, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences Canada, and the Canola Council of Canada.
(The Canadian Meat Council and the Dairy Farmers of Canada also testified. Both groups limited their comments to the defense of the small amounts of trans fats in meat and butter but failed to mount a defense of saturated fats.)
In addition, the leaders of the Task Force specifically held consultation with industry “to build a better understanding of industry issues and concerns pertaining to the reduction and effective elimination of industrially produced trans fats.”
The Task Force’s report expressed concerns that “reducing the dietary intake of trans fats could have a negative impact on Canadian production and processing of canola and soybean oils. This is because some of these oils are partially hydrogenated and thus contain trans fats. Removal of these oils from the market could decrease vegetable oil processing in Canada and potentially weaken oilseed production.”
While forced to admit that trans fats are bad, the food processing and oilseed industries are determined to prevent a wholesale switch from vegetable oils to saturated animal fats; and they succeeded in imposing this strategy on the committee’s deliberations by limiting discussion of the health effects to the very narrow parameters of cholesterol values.
The Task Force provides a summary of these biases and assumptions on page one of their report: “There is a significant and growing body of evidence linking trans fats to coronary heart disease indicating trans fats may do even more harm than saturated fats. Metabolic studies, for instance, show that trans fats increase blood levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decrease blood levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Both effects are strongly associated with increased coronary heart disease. Saturated fats are thought to be less damaging because they elevate both the “bad” and “good” types of cholesterol. Epidemiological data also point to a greater risk of coronary heart disease from increases in dietary trans fats than from increases in dietary saturated fats.”
Thus, in considering the health effects of trans and saturated fats, the committee limited their consideration to the arbitrary surrogate endpoints of LDL, HDL and total cholesterol. “All of the consulted experts agreed that there is sufficient evidence to consider the total/HDL cholesterol ratio as the primary biomarker for assessing the effects of dietary fats on coronary heart disease.”
With the exception of a brief mention of biomarkers for inflammation, the committee avoided looking at meaningful endpoints, such as death from heart disease; and the Task Force made no mention whatsoever of the relative effects of trans fats versus saturated fats on other biological systems, such as lung function, kidney function and the immune system. To do so would have put saturated fats in a positive light, something the committee was determined to avoid.
The committee operated on the premise that “trans fats are unavoidable in ordinary diets,” when in fact with the right public policy, the industrial trans fats (as opposed to the small amounts of natural trans fats that occur in meat fat and butter) could be completely avoided. The final report expressed concern that “these changes may potentially increase the intake of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids to undesirable levels.” Yet saturated fats are not considered as a viable alternative. “The goal should be to replace, as much as possible, trans and saturated fats with monounsaturated fats and maintain adequate intakes and a proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.. . . throughout its deliberations, the Task Force has been concerned that consumption of saturated fats should not increase significantly as a result of limitations on trans fats.” The committee stipulated that foods whose trans fat content has been reduced must also be low in saturated fat in order to carry a “trans fat free” claim.
The report makes only brief (and dismissive) mention of butter, coconut oil and palm oil as alternatives for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in baked goods and no mention at all by name of lard or beef and lamb tallow, the safe and logical fats for frying. “All the invited experts, including those providing written feedback, agreed that butter and other animal fats are not a good replacement for partially hydrogenated oils.” Why? Because “[b]utter has been shown to have a greater adverse effect on the total/HDL cholesterol ratio than all the other solid dietary fats (e.g. palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil) as well as margarines and shortenings with low to moderate levels of trans fats.”
A Dilemma for the Industry
In spite of successfully manipulating the discussion about trans and saturated fats, the focus on the dangers of trans fatty acids poses a real dilemma for the industry. Its options are, in fact, quite limited:
For salad dressings and tub spreads, the solution proposed is monounsaturated oils. The Task Force makes no mention of olive oil, the ideal choice. Canola oil is highly monounsaturated, but canola oil is not ideal. As mentioned in the report, it must be deodorized, a process that adds up to 2 percent trans fats. And most canola oil is industrially refined, which destroys vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
Baked goods present more serious problems. The report bemoans the fact that in some food categories, such as cookies, snack puddings, crackers, granola bars, oriental noodles and liquid coffee whiteners, “Partially hydrogenated oils have sometimes been replaced by oils in which 50-100% of total fat was saturated fat.” These are obviously palm oil (50% saturated) and coconut oil (90% saturated) or fully hydrogenated coconut oil (100% saturated), but the Task Force avoids mentioning the specific names of these fats.
According to the report, “At present, the only viable alternative to partially hydrogenated fats in baked goods appears to be fats and oils containing a significant proportion of saturated fatty acids. However, the use of saturates in baked goods should not lead to an overall increase in saturated fat intake as the use of saturates plus trans fats in other categories have been decreasing.”
Solutions for the industry include development of new more stable varieties of canola high in saturated stearic acid and full hydrogenation to produce solid fats high in saturated stearic acid. “For harder fats used in margarines and shortenings, the Task Force favoured products prepared by the interesterification of highly saturated oils or fully hydrogenated oils with different proportions of non-hydrogenated liquid vegetable oils.” In fact, the report encouraged research into “increasing the range and levels of saturated fatty acids in certain oilseed varieties, and identifying and developing possible new Canadian sources of saturated fats that can be used to produce interesterified fats and oils.”
Use of stearic acid from manipulated canola oil or from full hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oils will be difficult to justify because butter and meat fats—rejected because they “contribute to heart disease”—are rich in stearic acid. It is clear that the industry is planning to claim that industrially produced stearic acid is good but naturally occurring stearic acid in butter and meat fats is dangerous. “There is evidence from both metabolic and epidemiological studies,” writes the Task Force, “that saturated fats (at least those from dairy products and meat) increase the risk of coronary heart disease.”
The committee’s final recommendations create the impression that a solution has been found: “For all vegetable oils and soft, spreadable (tub-type) margarines sold to consumers or for use as an ingredient in the preparation of foods on site by retailers or food service establishments, the total trans fat content be limited by regulation to 2% of total fat content.
“For all other foods purchased by a retail or food service establishment for sale to consumers or for use as an ingredient in the preparation of foods on site, the total trans fat content be limited by regulation to 5% of total fat content. This limit does not apply to food products for which the fat originates exclusively from ruminant meat or dairy products.” (For the moment, butter has been spared!)
The Task Force estimates that these recommendations, if adopted, would reduce the average trans fat intake of Canadians by at least 55 percent, which, they claim, represents less than 1 percent of energy intake. “A lower limit would not provide a significant additional decrease in average trans fat intake, but it would increase the effort and challenge for industry.”
Help for the Industry
Naturally the food processing and oilseed industries will need help in making these changes. The report recommended incentives to “[e]nhance the capacity of the Canadian agri-food industry to take a leadership role in this area.” The report takes on the task of reviewing available alternatives to partially hydrogenated fats “without raising costs for manufacturers.”
Finally, the Task Force urges government support to “Help the food industry communicate the healthier nature of its products to consumers” including “designing effective messages, targeted to key groups, about the consumption of different types of fats.” The report makes it obvious that the campaign to “educate” consumers about “healthy” alternatives to trans fats will be used to deliver equally strident warnings about the “dangers” of saturated fats.
Saturated Fats versus Trans Fats
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2008.