The next time you reach out for that biscuit or muffin, cracker or taco, think of your heart rather than your stomach.
Although you might assume you have a healthy diet, how educated are you, really, about the hidden trans fats in your foods, which have been widely linked to cardiovascular disease (CVD), the biggest killer of older people in Ireland?
While we might be feeling quite virtuous, avoiding the chips, hash browns, chicken nuggets and kebabs — fried foods are foremost as dietary nasties in our minds — the list offered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stretches further than those oily baddies.
It includes baked goods like pies, biscuits, buns, cakes, pastries and sweet rolls; ready-to-microwave popcorn; wafers, tacos and tortillas; shortening (in many products); partially hydrogenated oils (in many products), and some margarines.
Up to 60% of those products’ fat can come from manufactured or industrial trans fats.
Naturally occurring trans fats — generally from animal and dairy products — which can comprise up to 6% of their fat, don’t have a negative health impact, says dietician, Paula Mee.
“But the industrial trans fats, if eaten in excess, have been linked with Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease,” she adds.
The artificial fats raise LDL cholesterol — the bad kind — and reduce levels of the good HDL cholesterol.
The link to CVD is indisputable, says Professor Ivan Perry, head of epidemiology and public health at UCC.
“The man-made, manufactured trans fats, which are chemically altered to make them more suitable for cooking and widely used in confectionary, really have no place in our diet at all,” he says.
“They were designed for the convenience of the food industry and are a potent cause of cardiovascular disease and stroke. They are probably the most toxic of our fats in our diet.
"Many guidelines suggest less than 1% intake of these trans fats in the diet, but I would say there should be zero-percent intake,” he says.
And the trans fat content might not be outlined on food labels, either.
“The new European nutrition label does not include trans fats, although many researchers believe them to be worse for blood cholesterol than saturated fat,” says Mee.
“The mandatory nutrition information on a European food only includes the energy value and also the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt.”
In 2007, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) commissioned a study of trans fats in processed foods sold in Ireland.
This showed that dried gravies and soups had the highest concentrations of trans fats overall, with 80% of the foods surveyed containing 2% trans fat as a percentage of total fat.
Then why are they still available here? We should have a ban on trans fats across Europe, but it’s hard to get agreement between the countries, says Perry.
Regulation of trans fats in Ireland comes under the minister for health’s brief and it’s clear it’s a public health issue.
A US study, published last month, led by Yale researcher, Dr Eric Brandt, found that people living in areas that restrict trans fats in foods had fewer hospitalisations for heart attack and stroke, compared to residents in areas without restrictions.
“Food manufacturers in the US have been obliged to label trans fats in their foods since 2006,” says Mee.
This has led to the food industry significantly cutting back on how many trans fats they use.
"Currently, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, and Latvia have their own legal limits on industrially produced trans fats in foods. Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Greece have voluntary measures to reduce them.”
A WHO policy report in 2015 states that removing trans fats from the food supply is “possibly one of the most straightforward public health interventions for reducing CVD risk and improving nutritional quality of diets”.
And while it recommends reducing our intake to less than 1% of our total daily energy intake, Mee says this is impossible for us, the shoppers, to do, without adequate labelling and a national public health campaign.
In the meantime, the best we can do to keep CVD risk from trans fats at bay is to eat a Mediterranean diet, says Perry.
“It’s not just about fats, but the dietary pattern. Eating the Med diet with fresh fruit, salads, fish and healthy oils — and less butter, full-fat dairy cheese and processed junk — that’s the key message.”
Mee agrees. And they both say that although diet is a big player in keeping the risk of CVD away, as we age, exercise, not smoking, and managing stress are also key.
And if you do want a forbidden ‘treat’, like a muffin, now and again, go for a quality product, which is less likely to have higher levels of trans fats, says Perry.
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