Fats in margarine, some other foods may increase heart disease risk

May 16, 1994|By Los Angeles Times


An article being published today raises the possibility that margarine and other processed foods could be the cause of 30,000 of the nation's heart disease deaths.

The fact that margarine may be a major factor in heart problems is not new. A year ago, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health announced findings that margarine can increase the risk for heart disease in women by as much as 70 percent. But the numbers in today's American Journal of Public Health article were seen as alarming and came under immediate attack.

The article was written by Harvard nutritionist Willard Willett, one of the leading researchers on diet and health disease.

"Will people be shocked? I suspect so," Dr. Willett told the Associated Press. "Many people who are trying to make good nutritional decisions for themselves and their kids are being grossly misled."

But others in the food industry were critical of the report, saying it was, in fact, an editorial and contained no new scientific data.

"This information has been worked on for quite a while," said Susan Borra, a registered dietician with the International Food Information Council. "There's nothing new there."

The article, done at the request of the Journal, is labeled as "commentary." In it, Dr. Willett posed the danger of what scientists have come to call "trans fats," which are produced during the hydrogenation process. That process is used to make such items as margarine, shortening, cookies, crackers and chips.

Doctors have long advised their patients to avoid saturated fat, found in meat and butter. Instead, they have recommended polyunsaturated vegetable oil, for which there is no known risk of heart disease.

Manufacturers, in turn, have used hydrogenation to solidify the polyunsaturated oils, making them easier to use in various products. Hydrogenation produces trans fats.

While many foods are marketed as healthy because they contain no polyunsaturates, they do contain the trans fats that tend to increase so-called "bad cholesterol" -- low-density lipoprotein.

In his article, Dr. Willett said a number of foods carry "egregiously deceptive" labels such as "fat free" and "cholesterol free" and "cooked in vegetable oil" when in fact they contained harmful trans fats.

He recommended that there be warning labels on food containing trans fats.

Ed Scarbrough, of the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency is considering the labeling issue.

In his article, Dr. Willett said he determined that the median U.S. intake of trans fats is 2 percent of the daily number of calories consumed. He used that figure to calculate the number of people who would be subject to heart disease because of trans fats and the estimated 30,000 deaths.

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