Artificial trans fats in processed foods, which were all but banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week, may interfere with memory, according to a new study from the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla.
It’s not clear if trans fats might interfere with memory by directly affecting the nervous system, or by contributing to overall cardiovascular disease, which harms the brain as well.
On June 16th, following a two-year public comment period, the FDA released a final determination that artificial trans fats in processed foods are not “generally recognized as safe.” Food manufacturers now have three years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products.
Trans fats occur in the milk and body fat of some animals, but the primary dietary source of trans fats is processed foods. The artificially produced oils extend food shelf life.
They had already been linked to higher “bad” LDL cholesterol, worse metabolic function, insulin resistance, inflammation and poorer cardiac and general health.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed data from a larger study of statin drugs. They focused on self-reported dietary patterns and the results of a word recall test performed with more than 600 adult men without diabetes, cardiovascular disease or high cholesterol levels.
To test word recall, the men were shown a series of 104 cards with 82 unique words and 22 words repeated in the set, and were asked to identify the words they had seed earlier in the test.
Among men under age 45, increasing dietary trans fatty acid consumption was associated with decreasing word recall, with each additional gram of trans fat per day matched to 0.76 fewer words identified correctly.
At the time of the study, participants’ trans fat consumption ranged up to 28 grams a day. That would translate to 21 fewer correct word-recall responses out of an average normal score of 86.
There was no association between trans fats and memory performance for people over age 45, which the study team says is in line with other research because older people have additional factors influencing memory.
As with any observational study, it is never completely possible to exclude other explanations, and the results do not indicate that trans fats cause changes in memory.
People who eat more processed foods may have other unhealthy habits that may explain memory performance.
There has been a dramatic decrease in trans fatty acids in foods introduced in recent years but there are still some available. The FDA estimates that trans fat consumption in the U.S. decreased by about 78 percent between 2003 and 2012, driven by manufacturers removing the fats from many foods and having to list them on nutrition labels.
Common sources of trans fat are microwave popcorn, shelf-stable baked goods, non-dairy creamers and fried fast foods.
Source: PLoS One, June 17, 2015.
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