The World Health Organization or WHO recommendation is that intake of trans fat should not exceed 1 percent of the total calories, and that saturated fats should not exceed 10 percent of total calories.
It is important to understand what these numbers mean – and how they are different.
1 percent trans fats
For trans fats, the 1 percent figure is, first and foremost, an arbitrary figure – a number plucked out of thin air.
The WHO recommendation is not a number based on any scientific studies because, as far as modern scientific research has shown, the safe level of trans fat is ZERO.
But because trans fats have become so prevalent in the modern food chain, it has become practically impossible to reduce the level to zero.
Thus, the figure of 1 percent was chosen. It is close enough to zero and it is a nice, round figure, easy to remember.
It is vital to bear in mind, however, that WHO recommendation of 1 percent trans fat is a COMPROMISE figure. It does not represent a safe level of trans fat intake. It certainly is not a healthy level.
Thus, we should not attach too much importance to this figure. We should not use it as our reference point and say that, as long as our intake is below 1 percent, we are okay – no need to worry too much, no need to take any further action to reduce our consumption level.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what many health authorities are doing. They cite the WHO recommendation and use it to justify not taking further action to ban trans fats or introduce mandatory trans fat labeling.
In Singapore, for example, the Health Promotion Board argues that there is no need to curb trans fats because the average consumption level is less than the WHO recommendation of 1 percent.
But even in places where the level of trans fat intake is higher, the same argument is being used.
When New York proposed legislation to ban trans fats, the National Restaurant Association cited the same WHO recommendation and argued that there there was no need to impose curbs because the average consumption level was “only 2 percent”.
How much is 1 percent trans fat?
It is also important to understand what the WHO recommendation of 1 percent figure means in practical terms.
Assuming an average person consumes 2,000 calories per day, 1 percent translates to 20 calories, which will come from about 2 grams of trans fats.
This might not seem much. But a serving of McDonald’s french fries and fried chicken nuggets in the US contains about 10 grams of trans fats. (The figure varies. In Denmark, which banned trans fats in 2003, the same meal contains only about 0.3 grams of trans fats.)
So even to keep within the WHO recommendation, which is already at the unsafe / unhealthy level, we can only eat a fraction of one serving of french fries and chicken nuggets each day.
That’s how deadly trans fats are. Very small amounts are enough to significantly increase a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other health problems.
Note also that 1 percent represents the average level of consumption. There will be people whose intake of trans fat is above average. And these tend to be the poor and lesser educated, who eat large amounts of cheap, commercially mass-produced foods like white bread, biscuits and pastries which contain high levels of trans fats.
These people are not likely to read nutrition labels to check for trans fat content. They buy whatever is cheapest and eat whatever they can get hold of. They, more than any other group, need and deserve the protection of anti-trans fat laws.
10 percent saturated fat
In contrast, the WHO recommendation that saturated fats make up about 10 percent of total calorific intake is based on many years of scientific research.
Research has shown that saturated fats – even though they are thought to cause heart disease – are necessary and beneficial for health. And so, in order to keep healthy, we should ensure that about 10 percent of our calorie intake consists of saturated fats.
So the WHO recommendation for saturated fats represents a HEALTHY level, not a compromise level. It serves more as a reference level than the WHO recommendation for trans fats.
At the same time, this is still an arbitrary, approximate figure – another nice, round number that is easy to remember. So again, we should not get too hung up about trying to meet the number exactly.
Also, the 10 percent WHO recommendation is in spite of widespread beliefs that saturated fats are harmful. Scientists are telling us to take 10 percent saturated fats even though they believe that saturated fats are harmful.
This says something, doesn’t it?
It tells us that saturated fats are not really as harmful as they are commonly made out to be. If they are, we should be avoiding them completely, rather than having them make up 10 percent – which is moderate proportion – of our diet.
How much is 10 percent saturated fat?
So how much is 10 percent saturated fat? Well, that is just slightly less than what most people eat.
The average saturated fat intake in most countries ranges from 11 to 13 percent. So if you are an average person, you would just slightly exceed the HEALTHY level of saturated fat.
In other words, you are just getting a bit too much of a good thing.
Is this a cause for concern? Maybe. Maybe not.
Is this a cause for constant condemnation of saturated fats and massive public education campaigns advising people to avoid saturated fats? I don’t think so.
Does it warrant advising people to take small amounts of highly toxic trans fats in order to reduce their saturated fat intake? Certainly not.
What if saturated fats are healthy?
Up to this point, we have been assuming that scientists are right in believing that saturated fats are harmful. But, as you will realize from reading the various articles in this website, this is most probably a mistaken belief.
All the research of the past 50-plus years proving saturated fats to be “harmful” had failed to differentiate between saturated fats and trans fats. And now, there is good reason to believe that trans fats – not saturated fats – are the true cause of heart disease, obesity and other degenerative disease.
Saturated fats have a clean track record, spanning thousands if not millions of years, of not causing any harm despite being consumed by human societies as the main form of fat.
So what if…. saturated fats are, in fact, healthy?
Then the WHO recommendation of 10 percent saturated fat in our diet may well be inadequate.
Before the 1920s in America, and before more recent decades in other parts of the world, people were consuming higher levels of saturated fats – and they were healthier. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and various types of cancers were rare!
Then, if you are presently consuming about 11 to 13 percent saturated fats, you may have a different sort of worry – that you are not taking enough saturated fats.
Right now, there is just a bit of scientific research to support this proposition. More scientific evidence in support of the benefits of saturated fats could be uncovered in the years to come.
The WHO recommendation for saturated fats may well have to be revised upwards.
Meanwhile, there is a group of people who ought to be concerned.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, and you are not taking any animal fat or coconut or palm oil, chances are you are not getting enough saturated fat in your diet. You are probably no where near the WHO recommendation of 10 percent saturated fat.
You need to take more – perhaps some butter or eggs if you are not a pure vegetarian, otherwise saturated fats from coconut and palm oil if you are vegan!