Monday, December 09, 2013

Guest Post: Health Canada is Partially, Fully and Just Plain Hydrogenated

[By our office's RD Rob Lazzinnaro]

Being the snoopy RD that I am, this past week I noticed a colleague’s peanut butter had “hydrogenated” vegetable oil in it. I was quick to decry,
Trans fat! Beware!”,
to anyone who would listen and sparking a discussion in the office around trans fat.

After a smidgen of more careful thought we agreed that if an ingredient list contained the words “partially hydrogenated” that there was no doubt it contained trans-fat, and that if an ingredient list contained the words "fully hydrogenated” that it meant no trans fat. However the question remained, what does the non-elaborated on lonely word “hydrogenated” mean in terms of trans-fat?

According to a statement from Health Canada,
The declaration of a ”hydrogenated" oil in the list of ingredients can refer to either a partially hydrogenated or a fully hydrogenated oil. Thus the term "hydrogenated" appearing in the ingredient list may or may not be indicating the presence of trans fats in the food product.
Not so helpful even for those reading labels, is it?

And what of the nutrition facts panel, can we look to it for guidance?

Not really as according to Health Canada,
"foods that contain 0.2g of trans fat or less per serving can be labelled trans-fat free
Sure, 0.2g seems small, but the words “per serving” are not standardized, meaning that serving sizes are much more arbitrary than real-world and as everyone knows, these often unreasonably small serving sizes can add up quickly. And how exactly is/was it determined that 0.2g of trans fat per serving is okay for the public to consume? Moreover, wouldn't Health Canada's guidelines mean the food industry could simply make their serving size smaller, use the term "hydrogenated", and then label their product “trans fat free?

In the United States, labelling laws and the wording is similarly ambiguous, with even higher allowable trans-fat amounts in a “trans-fat free” product at 0.5g/serving or less. BUT, the U.S is currently taking the right steps to try to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from their entire food supply, and it would seem here that Health Canada is not only doing nothing, but they have made it exceedingly easy for the food industry to dupe even label reading Canadians.

So why is this important?

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that
there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat.”,
while the head of Health Canada's own trans-fat task force labeled trans-fat a
"toxin unsafe in any amount".
My question for Health Canada is simple - why the ambiguous wording around an ingredient that is a known health risk, especially given your outright refusal to regulate it as your current definition seemingly only serves to benefit the food industry and not the public?

My recommendation for now is straightforward. When considering a product, unless you see the word "fully" right before "hyrdogenated", or if you see shortening anywhere in the ingredient list, put the item back on the shelf.

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  1. Thanks :-) I've long suspected that: although nutrition labels are ostensibly for the public benefit (so we can make responsible choices about what we eat), they increasingly serve little purpose other than as additional marketing tools for the food manufacturers...

    I'm sure there are many who think that these labels are defined by an independent , neutral, closely-regulated laboratory somewhere; which only has our best interests at heart. Instead of realising that these are put together by the food manufactures themselves; with little to no oversight or outside checks. Manufacturers who know (probably helped write) the policies regarding such labels -- and fully how to exploit them. As you mentioned above: how to manipulate the serving size, claim zero if below a certain threshold, the allowable margins for "error", substitute one large amount of sweetener with smaller amounts of several slightly different ones; so they appear lower and distributed (hidden) in the ingredients list.

    My advice is to buy local, seasonal, real, whole food, which you prepare yourself (or eat at a reputable local restaurant). Avoid "food" which even requires a label -- even so-called "organic" food has recently become co-opted by the big players... better to meet your farmer face to face, if you can :-)

  2. I forgot to add the sneakiest trick of all: where you will note that "Total Carbohydrates" is only broken down into "Sugars" and "Fibre" which often do not sum up to the same grams as the Total...

    "Starch" does not get a mention for some reason... so diabetics like myself are left to do the maths for ourselves...

    What does this do for the ingredients available to a food manufacturer? Well it means you can use less "Sugar" (which is taken to mean simple, mono- and disaccharides: such as Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose, Lactose, HFCS -- or whatever they are allowed to call it these days) and replace it with Maltodextrin (for example) a man-made "starch" and therefore not counted as "sugar", despite it quickly breaking down into glucose.

    What is the purpose of such obfuscation? Who stands to benefit the most from it? Do you really need three guesses..?

  3. Most people don't realize that trans fats are mixtures of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated isomers of oils derived from plant sources. Originally, they were the all in the cis form of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oil but high temperature processing in the presence of catalysts alters their shape. Note: by definition, trans fats are never saturated.

    The vast majority of polyunsaturated trans fatty acids are omega-6s. Excerpt from Page157 of "The Modern Nutritional Diseases: and How to Prevent Them" by Fred and Alice Ottoboni:

    "Light partial hydrogenation is used primarily to extend the consumer acceptance and shelf life of salad and cooking oils. It attacks the most vulnerable double bonds, primarily those in polyunsaturated fatty acids with three double bonds, which are the fatty acids most responsible for rancidity. Unfortunately, these particular double bonds are the more fragile omega-3 EFA bonds. The selective destruction by hydrogenation of omega-3 EFAs in salad oils produces an unhealthful ratio of omega-6/omega-3 EFAs."

    The observed harmful effects of trans fats is likely due to the fact that a goodly portion of them are omega-6 trans fats and, as such, are subject of peroxidation and the formation of free radicals. In addition, the use of trans fats in place of saturated fats boosts omega-6 intake because a substantial portion of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils consists of omega-6s in the cis form.