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.