We’ve been hearing for years that dietary trans fats are bad for your health; the American Heart Association warns that eating foods containing trans fats can raise your risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Now, new research published in the journal Neurology shows that artificial trans fats – manufactured through an industrial process – may also increase the risk for developing dementia by 50-75 percent.
The FDA banned industrialized trans fats in the US as of 2018, although extensions were given to some companies through 2019. However, this “ban” didn’t eliminate all uses of trans fats – products are still permitted to contain trans fats as long as they don’t exceed 0.5 grams per serving. However, these companies are permitted to claim “zero trans fats” on their ingredient labels even though they actually contain up to 0.5 grams per serving.
It’s obvious that even with such restrictions, a person can easily consume higher levels of trans fats just by eating more than one serving at a time; in some cases, one serving may be only a few pieces or an ounce. Chances are that you’ll either eat more than one serving or consume several products with trans fats, all of which adds up in your body.
Companies use this artificial additive as a way to enhance flavor and/or texture or to extend a product’s shelf life. Some of the products that are permitted to continue containing trans fats (also called partially hydrogenated oil) are:
- ready-to-use frostings
- baked goods (cookies, cakes, frozen pies)
- microwave popcorn (and some bagged popcorn)
- snack foods
- fast food
- refrigerated dough products
- frozen pizza
- coffee creamers
- vegetable shortening
Doesn’t look like much of a “ban”, does it? To illustrate the point above, imagine you put margarine on your toast in the morning or use it to cook an egg, then you also add an artificial creamer to your coffee. Later on you have a frozen pizza for lunch, followed by microwave popcorn or some other packaged snack in the afternoon. On your way home from work you grab takeout from your favorite fast food place, and later in the evening you have some cookies or crackers. Even if you stay within a single serving size of each – which isn’t likely, considering how small many serving sizes are – you’ve tallied up trans fats from six sources. This may sound extreme, but if you check ingredient labels for partially hydrogenated oils, you may be surprised at what you find.
The study in Neurology looked at over 1,600 people in one city in Japan for a period of ten years. Of the people with high and moderate serum elaidic acid levels (biomarkers indicating levels of industrial trans fats in the blood) at the end of that decade, approximately a quarter of the people in each group had developed dementia; those with the lowest levels fared best. After adjusting for other health issues that could affect dementia risk, such as blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes, researchers found that those in the groups with the two highest levels of serum elaidic acid were between 50 and 75 percent more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease than those in the lowest group.
The study conclusion in Neurology states: “The findings suggest that higher serum elaidic acid is a possible risk factor for the development of all-cause dementia and AD [Alzheimer’s disease] in later life.”
The study also took into consideration which foods caused the highest increase of trans fats in the blood. The biggest contributor was sweet pastries, after which came candies and caramels, margarine, croissants, creamers, rice crackers, and ice cream.
The World Health Organization hopes to achieve a worldwide elimination of trans fats by 2023 in order to work toward dementia prevention as well as a reduction in heart disease and other trans fats-related health problems.
You don’t have to wait for a worldwide ban to minimize trans fats in your diet – staying away from processed foods as well as fried and fast food, checking labels of any packaged/prepared foods for partially hydrogenated oils, and focusing your diet on whole foods will go a long way toward lowering the trans fats in your body.