Group recommends educational approach to reduce trans fat consumption

University Park, Pa. -- A task force charged with developing Pennsylvania's strategy for reducing trans fat consumption has recommended that Gov. Ed Rendell and the General Assembly refrain from enacting legislation prohibiting or severely limiting their use. Instead, the Pennsylvania Trans Fat Task Force endorsed the creation of a statewide campaign that increases public awareness of the harmful effects of trans fats and encourages restaurants and food manufacturers to reduce their presence in foods.

Peter L. Bordi Jr., director of the Penn State Center for Food Innovation, chaired the task force of nearly three dozen state and local government officials, food manufacturing, food service and restaurant industry leaders, academic researchers, health advocates and public education representatives. The task force reviewed scientific data indicating the detrimental health effects of artificial trans fats and documented steps being taken by industry and governments to increase awareness and reduce their consumption. Based on its findings, the task force recommended that Pennsylvania:

-- Avoid creating any legislation which prohibits/severely limits the use of artificially produced trans fats in Pennsylvania, as businesses are already working at eliminating them from the food supply and researchers are developing alternative sources;

-- Create an educational campaign which increases public awareness of trans fats and their harmful health implications;

-- Identify funding opportunities and resources to develop educational materials for Pennsylvania restaurants and food companies;

-- Encourage Pennsylvania schools to adopt the trans fat standards set forth in the Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods in Pennsylvania Schools for the School Nutrition Incentive program; and

-- Incorporate a public health message around trans fats that can be made available at Pennsylvania restaurants and food companies throughout the Commonwealth.

"While the task force certainly advocates that artificial trans fats be eliminated from food products as much and as quickly as possible, members believed legislation banning their use might actually be counterproductive," Bordi says. "Healthier alternatives to artificial trans fat continue to be developed, but legislation imposing deadlines for eliminating them may force restaurants and food companies to switch to equally unhealthy alternatives just to meet the deadline. We prefer a 'wait and see' approach that allows researchers to continue developing cheaper, healthier options."

"Mandatory trans fat bans haven't necessarily accomplished everything they were intended to accomplish," adds Patrick Conway, chief executive officer for the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association and a member of the task force. "There are other choices that could be more harmful from a health perspective, so you need to be aware of the alternatives. This is one of those rare opportunities to utilize a proactive, educational approach to resolving an issue."

According to George Frangakis, marketing manager for Sweet Street Desserts and a member of the task force, the group also hoped to underscore the differences between natural and artificial trans fats. Trans fats occur naturally in meats and dairy products; they also are produced artificially in foods made with partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings -- doughnuts, cakes, cookies, crackers and other baked goods as well as various fried foods -- to increase the shelf life and flavor stability of those products. "People don't realize there are differences between the two," Frangakis says.

Numerous studies have shown that artificial trans fats are extremely detrimental to one's health. In addition to being linked to Alzheimer's disease/cognitive decline, inflammation and ischemic heart disease, artificial trans fats have been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease more than any other macronutrient. However, studies of natural trans fats seem to indicate that they don't cause the same adverse health as artificial trans fats.

"Because trans fats occur naturally in some foods, it would be almost impossible to eliminate them entirely from a person's diet," Bordi says. "Plus, some research suggests that the health implications of consuming natural trans fats aren't as great as consuming artificially produced trans fats; therefore, legislation aimed at eliminating all products with trans fats could be considered overkill."

Under Bordi's direction, Penn State graduate student Susan Cocci developed a 27-question Trans Fat Survey that allowed the task force to gauge consumer understanding of trans fats and their health implications. Because survey participants were not selected randomly, they did not constitute a representative sample of the Pennsylvania population. However, their responses helped the task force decide whether educational materials targeting specific demographic groups should be developed, or if general materials would meet the needs of the state's entire population instead.

Looking ahead, the Center for Food Innovation will play a key role in implementing the task force's recommendations by serving as the primary clearinghouse of trans fat information for the Pennsylvania food industry. The center already has begun developing information for consumers that is being used in educational campaigns conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association; it also will invite small food manufactures interested in the center's expertise and facilities to reformulate and evaluate products which currently contain trans fats.

Findings and recommendations of the Pennsylvania Trans Fat Task Force and other trans fat information can be found at http://www.dsf.health.state.pa.us/health/cwp/view.asp?a=174&Q=251856&PM=1 online.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010