Hold the french fries, doughnuts, and cookies, and save as many as 228,000 heart attacks and deaths from heart disease. That’s the message from a team of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
“Given the 1.2 million annual [heart attacks] and deaths from coronary heart disease in the United States, near-elimination of industrially produced trans fats might avert between 72,000 and 228,000 coronary heart events each year,” the researchers report. Trans fats are also thought to play a role in unexplained sudden deaths and diabetes.
The major sources of trans fats include deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines, and crackers. French fries, breaded fish burgers, breaded chicken nuggets, Danish pastries, pies, doughnuts, and cookies are the big offenders. Hamburgers, steaks, lamb chops, and dairy products contain only small amounts of natural trans fats so they don’t make the list of “worsts.” “The presence of beneficial factors in dairy and these meats may balance the effects of the smaller amount of trans fats they contain,” according to Dariush Mozaffarian, lead author of the report that appears in the April 13, 2006, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Ten to 19 percent of the coronary heart disease in the United States (120,000 to 228,000 heart attacks) could be averted by reducing the intake of trans fats, says Walter Willett, head of the research and Fredrick Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
According to the evidence that Mozaffarian, Willett, and their colleagues gathered from studies in the United States and Europe, the “adverse health effects of trans-fatty acids are far stronger on average than those of food contaminants or pesticide residues, which have in some cases received considerable attention. Furthermore, trans fats have no intrinsic health value above their calories.”
The research team suggests that trans fats be reduced or eliminated from foods sold in stores, restaurants, and vending machines. Opposing arguments from food manufacturers and restaurants maintain that this would raise costs and lower taste. Recent experiences in Europe indicate that such concerns are overstated, say the researchers. They mention Denmark as a prime example. In that country, all oils and fats used in locally made or imported foods must contain less than 2 percent of industrially produced trans fats.