Not all trans fats are created equal and it's time for nutritional labels to reflect that reality, says a University of Alberta nutrition expert.
According to a scientific review conducted by Spencer Proctor, along with Canadian and international colleagues, natural trans fats produced by ruminant animals such as dairy and beef cattle are not detrimental to health. In fact, they show significant positive health effects and some evidence even links these natural trans fats to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
According to the review, naturally occurring trans fat has a different fatty acid profile than industrial trans fat, which contributes to its different physiological effects. Ruminant trans fat is naturally occurring and found in meat and dairy foods, while industrial produced trans fat is a component of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been strongly associated with cholesterol and coronary heart disease.
Consumers are bombarded on a regular basis about what they should and shouldn't eat. Quite often fat is the primary target of what to avoid and trans fats in particular have a negative reputation.
"A change in how trans fat information is presented on nutrition labels would be a huge step forward," says Proctor, a researcher in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science who is director of the Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases Laboratory at the U of A. "Right now, in Canada and the U.S., a substantial portion of natural trans fats content is included in the nutrition label trans fats calculation, which is misleading for the consumer. We need a reset in our approach to reflect what the new science is telling us."
Spencer adds that in some European countries, natural trans fat is not included in the nutrition label calculation. Another approach may be to have separate listings for industrial trans fats and natural trans fats.
Researchers evaluated an evidence base from numerous studies in the review. Based on the promising findings to date, plans for new studies are gaining momentum to further investigate the health implications of natural ruminant-derived trans fats.
One leading scientific program headed by Proctor was recently approved for a $1 million research grant from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency to further this line of study over the next several years.
"With industry, the science community, regulators and other important groups in this area working together, we can continue to make strides to help the public better understand the health implications of natural ruminant trans fats," says Proctor.
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