Canadians could benefit under a U.S. proposal to require the food industry to gradually phase out trans fats, says a consumer advocate who wants Health Canada to follow the FDA's lead.
On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration proposed banning artificial trans fat in processed food, saying the elimination could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart-related deaths each year in the U.S.
Manufacturers use trans fats to extend shelf life. Consuming trans fat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease, the FDA says.
The U.S. regulator is proposing to make partially hydrogenated oils, the main dietary source of trans fats in processed foods, an additive that could not be used in food unless authorized.
"According to records we obtained, their [Health Canada's] own scientists told them they could prevent 1,000 deaths a year and save between a quarter and almost half a billion dollars a year by making regulations to get trans fat out of the food supply," Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said in an interview.
"We hope that this minister will now take the science seriously."
Jeffery said it's hard to say what the implications of the U.S. proposal will be for Canadians.
"It may be that U.S. food manufacturers [who] export to Canada will just export a safer product with less trans fat in it, or maybe they'll see Canada as a market to dump their foods and maybe we'll end up with more trans fat coming across the border."
The documents that Jeffery's group obtained last year showed the federal government planned to limit the trans fat content of vegetable oils and soft, spreadable margarines to two per cent of the total fat content and all other foods to five per cent.
The announcement was never made.
It seems like when Health Canada hears evidence from experts, including their own, "it helps them decide what not to do," Jeffery said.
Food & Consumer Products of Canada, which represents the food, beverage and consumer products industry, said it aware of the FDA proposal.
"Canada once had the highest levels of trans-fat consumption in the world," Susan Abel, the group's vice-president of safety and compliance, said in a statement to CBC News.
"Today, the majority of Canada's food supply is trans-fat-free and Canadians have access to thousands of reformulated products. In fact, according to Health Canada’s own monitoring program, 80 per cent of the pre-packaged foods have reached the voluntary target reduction goals."
"Health Canada is pleased with this progress and continues to encourage industry to reduce the trans fat levels in their foods as low as possible while not increasing saturated fats," a spokeswoman said in a statement.
After the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey on nutrient intakes, Health Canada said it will assess contributing factors to determine what may need to change.
The FDA said trans fats can still be found in some processed foods, such as:
- Crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies and other baked goods.
- Microwave popcorn products.
- Frozen pizza.
- Vegetable shortenings and stick margarines.
- Coffee creamers.
- Refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls).
- Ready-to-use frostings.
Canada's limited approach to regulating synthetic trans fats has led to confusion, said Laurie Pinhorn, a nutritionist in the St John's area.
Foods that contain small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils, such as in some peanut butters, are often labelled as trans-fat free. Psychologically, products labelled trans-fat free gain a "halo effect," and people think they can consume more, Pinhorn said.
During a 60-day public comment period, the FDA is seeking comments, such as how the move would impact small businesses.
Natural trans fats are found in meat and milk from ruminant animals.