Confusing nutrition messages - trans fats

Posted by Shaleen Meelu on Thursday, 12 April 2012 in General

Confusing nutrition messages

I received an e-mail enquiry from Lead Nurse Consultant at 'Healthy Tomato', Kiran Sidhu.

'I attended a workshop by a nutritionist who told me that all vegetable spreads (including Benecol and Flora) contain hyrdogenated fats (and so I guess trans fats). I thought these were now discouraged and the vegetable fats in higher end products were hardened by emulsificaiton/thickeners. Can you advise how Flora and Benecol have managed to harden veg fat at room temerature and therefore avoid hrdrogenation? She also said that Nutella was a healthy option for breakfast and that cooking with coconut oil is good for you.'

About Trans Fats

Fat is an important and essential nutrient. There are many different types of fat that can be obtained from a variety of food sources. Different fats have different structures. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered health promoting (vegetable oils, nuts, seeds). Saturated and trans-fats are considered unhealthy and damaging to heart health (animal fats and processed oils). So we are advised to restrict consumption of the latter. 

A few years ago we met the public health department in New York. They were the first city to regulate the use of trans-fats in restaurants. Although health promoting organisations in the UK have repeated calls for a ban of trans-fats this has been considered unnecessary. Following   a review by the Food Standards Agency in 2007 which found that 'trans-fat levels in vegetable oils in the UK are at a minimum'. The estimated UK intake of trans-fats is actually half that recommended as an upper limit by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).

We don't need either saturated or trans-fats to function as healthy human beings but as both exist in common food types, an upper limit is suggested. But the clear message is to restrict consumption below this value or avoid totally. 

About Margarine:

In Europe margarine contains virtually no or minimal amounts of trans-fats. As summarised in this paper by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (also worth following by budding nutritionists). Interestingly, trans-fats still appear to be an issue in the US.  

Incidentally, we love drizzling olive oil on bread or even toast. Yum!

Nutella is a healthy option for breakfast...

...if you eat a teaspoon on e.g a slice of toasted rye bread with some portions of fruit and a lovely bowl of porridge with sprinklings of nuts and raisins. You know what's really funny, it was easier to find pics of children eating nutella for breakfast or ridiculously huge bowls of sugary breakfast cereals than anything well balanced and nutritious. 

As for Coconut Oil: 

We're sure this has become the new aloe vera. Soon you will meet people selling coconut oil for cooking, for hair, for body the foyers of shopping malls. Coconut oil is the only vegetable based saturated fat. Saturated fat should be avoided or restricted.  Use it occasionally for example if you are preparing a Sri Lankan or Thai dish for an authentic flavour. 

When meeting nutritionists that sound confusing:

  • Ask if they are registered with the Association for Nutrition. 
  • Point out that their advice contradicts world leading research institutes such as Harvard School of Public Health and organisations including Department of Health, Food Standards Agency, World Health Organisation
  • Also worth finding out if they are sponsored by the food industry (or in this case own a coconut plantation)
  • Finally point out how impractical it is to be focusing on any one food product when trying to deliver a health promoting message and suggest they go and do some reading about food culture, sociology, biochemistry, metabolism, food industry, technology, public health, behaviour....etc. 

It is not necessary to be a rocket scientist to  be a nutritionist but it is important to be aware of the multiple factors influencing food choice and health. 






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Hi, my name is Shaleen Meelu and I am the founder of Healthy Futures. I’m also a registered nutritionist and I have helped over 3,000 people embark upon healthy living programmes.


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