Many health authorities and nutritionists advise that trans fat and saturated fat should be considered together – that is, one should reduce the intake of both substances, since both are said to be harmful to health.
This approach is totally flawed because it lumps together two substances that are totally different from each other.
As we shall see in the comparison table below, trans fat and saturated fat often behave in opposite ways – the things that saturated fats do to the body, trans fats do the exact opposite. Thus, it makes no sense at all to consider them together.
This approach of lumping the two together often becomes an excuse for not imposing curbs on trans fats. Sometimes, it even results in consumers being given bad advice.
No need for action
Governments and health authorities argue that, since trans and saturated fats should be considered together, the more urgent issue is to tackle the “problem” of saturated fats, since people consume a lot more saturated fats than trans fats.
They further argue that greater health problems might arise if people try to avoid trans fats and end up taking more saturated fats.
When New York proposed a ban on trans fats in September 2006, a dietician representing the National Restaurant Association used this same line of thinking to argue that a ban should not be imposed. Good thing the New York Department of Health did not accept this lack of logic and went ahead and approved the ban in December 2006.
In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board actually advises consumers to choose products that contain trans fats – like soft margarine. It even labels soft margarine as “Healthier Choice” on the basis that they contain lower levels of trans fats compared with harder types of margarine.
Again, the argument is that trans fat and saturated fat should be considered together, and it is healthier to choose small amounts of trans fat over larger amounts of saturated fat.
This is extremely misguided advice. It amounts to telling people to take small amounts of a deadly poison (trans fats) in order to avoid saturated fat which is, at worst, a mild poison and, at best, a beneficial, healthy product.
World Health Organization recommendations
The WHO recommendations for trans fat and saturated fat is often cited as the explanation for this sort of misguided advice.
The WHO recommends that consumption of trans fat should not exceed 1 percent of the total calorie intake.
Thus, countries like Singapore argue that there is no need to curb trans fats because the average consumption level is less than 1 percent. In the US, on the other hand, the National Restaurant Association argued that there was no need to impose curbs because the average consumption level was “only 2 percent”.
At the same time, the WHO recommends that consumption of saturated fat should not exceed 10 percent of the total calorie intake.
Since saturated fat consumption is in the range of 11 to 13 percent in most countries, which exceeds the WHO recommendations, these countries then argue that the more urgent matter is to reduce saturated fat consumption..
Difference between WHO recommendations on trans fat and saturated fat
What the various health authorities fail to realize – or choose to ignore – is this: The WHO recommendations for trans fat and saturated fat are two different types of recommendations.
In the case of trans fats, the recommendation of 1 percent is a COMPROMISE LEVEL. It is not a safe level, and certain not a healthy level.
The safe / healthy level is for trans fats is ZERO. But since trans fats have become so prevalent in the food chain, it is not practical right now to achieve zero trans fat, so a compromise level of one percent was set.
In the case of saturated fats, the recommendation of 10 percent is the HEALTHY LEVEL. Saturated fats are beneficial to health in many ways and various scientists have determined that a healthy level of saturated fat consumption should be about 10 percent.
When one understands this difference between the recommended intake levels for trans fat and saturated fat, a new perspective emerges.
To compare like with like, we should compare the healthy levels of 0 percent trans fats with 10 percent for saturated fats.
Thus, whether a population consumes 0.5 or 1 or 2 percent trans fat, it has exceeded the healthy level infinitely! But when a population consumes 11 or 13 percent saturated fat, it has only exceeded the healthy level slightly.
Viewed from this perspective, between trans fat and saturated fat, the greater cause for concern is still trans fat.
We now take a closer look at the many other differences between trans fat and saturated fat:
|TRANS FAT AND SATURATED FAT|
|SATURATED FATS||TRANS FATS|
|Totally natural||Totally unnatural – except for very small amounts found in some dairy products. Most trans fats are formed by an industrial process that involve extreme high heat, high pressure and the use of toxic substances as catalysts|
|Consumed by humans for millions of years||Consumed by humans only since the last century|
|Needed by the body for various functions||Not at all needed by the body|
|Preserve the integrity of cell membranes||Distort and weakens cell membranes|
|Enhance immunity||Obstruct immune function|
|Increase the level of HDL or “good” cholesterol||Decrease HDL or “good” cholesterol, increase LDL “bad” cholesterol|
|Decrease the level of atherogenic lipoprotein (a), or Lp(a), a substance associated with heart disease||Increase the level of Lp(a)|
|Help the body conserve and utilise beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids||Cause body tissues to lose Omega 3|
|Do not increase C-reactive protein||Increase C-reactive protein, which causes arterial inflammation|
|Do not inhibit insulin binding||Inhibit insulin binding, leading to diabetes|
|Do not interfere with enzyme functions||Interfere with many enzyme functions|
|Needed for healthy function of the lungs||Associated with asthma|
|Promote fertility||Associated with decreased fertility|
|Some saturated fats destroy virus, bacteria, fungi and protozoa||Do nothing to destroy harmful organisms|
|Some saturated fats – the short and medium chain fatty acids – promote metabolism and help weight loss||Contribute to weight gain and obesity|
|Some saturated fats contain subtances that fight cancer||Associated with increased rates of various cancers|
Apart from the different effects of trans fat and saturated fat on the body, their effects on food are also interesting to note. This is where they are some similarities – because trans fats were created during the process of hydrogenation to imitate saturated fats. But there are differences as well.
- Saturated fats enhance the flavor of food, making them more delicious – for example, bread spread with butter, or cakes and cookies made with butter, are more delicious than bread spread with margarine or cakes and cookies made with margarine.
- Both trans fat and saturated fat impart good textures, such as flaky pastry and crispy deep fried foods, although trans fats generally do a more effective job of this.
- Both trans fat and saturated fat enables food to be cooked at high temperatures, without the oil turning rancid.
Note, however, that trans fats are made from vegetable oils that have already turned rancid to begin with. It is only after the unnatural processing – at high temperature, high pressure and with the addition of toxic catalysts – that such oils can withstand high temperatures. In their natural state, the vegetable oils that go into making margarine, vegetable shortening etc, turn rancid at relatively low temperatures.
- Saturated fats give food a relatively long shelf life, but trans fats give them a super long shelf life.
To prove this point, nutritionist Bonnie Minsky carries around and shows a cup cake – made with trans fats – that is 25 years old. It lasted even longer than the plastic packaging!
Minsky had bought the cake in 1981 and “let it sit for a few months” to see what would happen. Well, it is no longer sitting around, but travelling around with her, after more than 25 years!
It is clear, then, that trans fat and saturated fat are different, often opposite, in many ways.
The one similarity is that both have been associated with heart disease. Still, there is an important difference here.
Saturated fats are only believed to cause heart disease. They did not cause heart disease in the thousands and millions of years that humans have been taking them, since heart disease became prevalent only in recent decades.
In the US, the rate of heart disease began to climb only after the 1920s. In other countries, the rate began to climb as recently as the 1970s,
Recently, when I wrote a commentary in the press suggesting that saturated fats do not cause heart disease, the heads of three national health associations – Singapore Heart Foundation, Singapore National Stroke Association, Singapore Nutrition & Dietetics Association – tried to refute me by pointing out that:
“There is good scientific evidence to show that a diet high in saturated fat, especially among populations in developed countries, is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.”
I highlighted the phrase “especially among populations in developed countries”. Why should saturated fat cause heart disease and stroke especially among some populations but not in others?
Does this not suggest that saturated fat is not the cause of the problems? Sadly and shockingly, the heads of leading health associations cannot seem to understand this.
But even if one accepts the idea that saturated fats cause heart disease and stroke, there is still a very major difference between trans fat and saturated fat – because trans fat cause heat disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, cancer and lots more diseases!
The consensus among more enlightened scientists is that trans fats are many times more deadly than saturated fats.
Yet various “experts” continue to argue that they should be considered together!