Can Processed Foods Protect Against Coronary Deaths?

Wednesday, 23rd September 2015

Research has shown that a processed food product previously alleged to have toxic effects could be harmless in small quantities. It has also been suggested that one version may even protect against heart disease deaths.

In the past, TFAs (trans fatty acids), also referred to as hydrogenated or trans fats, have been associated with diabetes, strokes, heart conditions, high cholesterol and even some forms of cancer.

High intakes of TFAs have also been linked with a heightened risk of Alzheimer’s disease and infertility.

Yet new research has found that small amounts of industrially produced TFAs are safe and a TFA that occurs naturally in meat and milk could actually have health benefits.

Dr Marcus Kleber from Heidelberg University, Germany, was lead scientist of the study. He said the results suggest that the low levels of artificially produced TFA they found didn’t pose a risk to health and could therefore be considered safe.

He also said they found that a naturally occurring TFA called trans-palmitoleic acid, found in meat and milk from ruminant animals, is linked with better levels of blood glucose and fewer deaths from any cause, in particular sudden cardiac death.

Other experts, however, have warned the public not to be misled by findings that could have been influenced by confounding factors. They have reiterated the message that TFAs are not a healthy addition to the diet.

In previous years, TFAs were used widely as ingredients in processed foods like pies, biscuits and cakes, as well as for frying food. In Europe, artificial TFA consumption has been reduced greatly as there have been calls to outlaw or limit the ingredients.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clamped down of TFAs in June by withdrawing their “generally recognised as safe” status and essentially prohibiting them from food products.

Researchers conducting this latest study measured concentrations of TFAs in the red blood cells of 3,259 participants in South West Germany undergoing a diagnostic procedure that investigated heart disease in 1997-2000.

The participants were monitored after that for around a decade, during which time 30% of them died. Their TFA levels were investigated against BMI, medical history and lifestyle factors such as physical activity and smoking.

Despite the fact higher concentrations of TFAs in the membranes of red blood cells were linked to higher levels of harmful cholesterol, they were also associated with lower risk of diabetes, reduced triglyceride blood fats and lower BMI.

Higher levels of TFAs did not lead to a greater risk of death compared to US research.

But scientists pointed out that TFAs made up a much smaller proportion of total fatty acids in the participants’ blood, at just less than 1% on average in comparison to more than 2.6% for the participants of the American experiment.

According to Dr Kleber, the team were surprised to discover that naturally occurring TFAs were linked to lower death rates. This is due to a lower risk of death from sudden cardiac arrest.

In a publication in the European Heart Journal, the researchers said most studies that highlight the health risks associated with TFAs had recruited participants a long time ago, when levels of TFAs were higher than they are today.