People living in areas that restrict trans fats in foods had fewer hospitalizations for heart attack and stroke compared to residents in areas without restrictions. That’s according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine and Yale School of Medicine.
The results are impressive, considering the study focused on trans fat bans in restaurants, as opposed to complete bans that included food sold in grocery stores.
What are trans fats?
Industry-produced trans fatty acids are formed through partial hydrogenation, a chemical process that renders liquid vegetable oils semi-solid and more heat stable. Partially hydrogenated oils make foods last longer on store shelves and add taste and texture to many crackers, cookies, pastries, muffins, snack foods, breaded fish sticks and fried foods.
A steady intake of trans fats raises LDL cholesterol, especially the small, dense LDL particles that are more damaging to blood vessels. Trans fat also lowers HDL cholesterol, the so-called good type that moves cholesterol from the arteries to the liver for disposal.
Compared to saturated fats in animal foods, trans fats have been linked with a 2.5 to 10-fold higher risk of coronary heart disease.
Some cities, most notably New York City, have eliminated the use of trans fats in restaurants in recent years.
To study the impact of restricting trans fats, researchers compared outcomes for people living in New York counties with and without the restrictions. Using data from the state department of health and census estimates between 2002 and 2013, the researchers focused on hospital admissions for heart attack and stroke.
Six per cent decline for heart attack, stroke hospital admissions
They found that three or more years after the restrictions were implemented, people living in areas with the bans had significantly fewer hospitalizations for heart attack and stroke when compared to similar urban areas where no limits existed. The decline for the combined conditions was 6.2 percent.
The findings highlight the power of public policy to impact the cardiovascular health of a population, the lead researcher noted.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a nationwide ban on partially hydrogenated oil in foods, which effectively will eliminate dietary trans fat when it goes into effect in 2018.
Reading labels for trans fats
Current FDA labeling guidelines allow up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving to be labeled as 0 grams, which leaves consumers with the burden of reading ingredient lists for hidden trans fats.
In Canada, foods than contain small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils can be labelled “trans fat free” if they contain less than 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving and no more than 2 grams of trans plus saturated fat combined.
However, a trans fat free claim shouldn’t give you license to eat as much as you want. Multiple servings of small amounts of trans fats add up.
If a packaged food doesn’t have a nutrition label, as may be the case for foods prepared in-store, scan the ingredient list. Partially hydrogenated oils and fully hydrogenated oils (which are not a source of trans fat) can be listed the same way on ingredient lists: as hydrogenated oils. Avoid buying products that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil or shortening.
Source: JAMA Cardiology, April 12, 2017.
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