A German study confirms that low levels of trans fats are generally safe when it comes to heart health.
Published in the European Heart Journal, this study analyzed the impact of trans fats on risk for heart-related deaths. Trans fats are unsaturated fatty acids that are considered by most experts to be the worst kind of fat. Many studies have found that not only do trans fats raise “bad” cholesterol, they lower “good” cholesterol, increasing risk for heart disease and heart attack. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that industrially produced trans fats like those found in processed foods are “generally not safe” and will be banned in the U.S. in the next few years.
But it’s difficult to cut trans fats out completely. Trans fats occur naturally in certain animal products, like milk, dairy and meat. That’s why the World Health Organization recommends reducing trans fat intake to less than 4% of daily energy. The German Society for Nutrition went even further by recommending limiting trans fat intake to less than 1% of energy.
But is consuming even small amounts of trans fats safe for heart health? To learn more, researchers analyzed data from the Ludwigshafen Risk and Cardiovascular Health (LURIC) study, which investigates environmental and genetic factors related to heart disease. The study included more than 3,000 German adults hospitalized for chest pain or heart attack between 1997 and 2000. Researchers measured patients trans fat levels using blood tests and then tracked key cardiovascular outcomes for roughly ten years.
During the follow-up period, 30% of participants died; 19% of deaths were from cardiovascular causes, 8% of which were sudden cardiac deaths. However, trans fats did not appear to increase risk of death in study participants. In fact, researchers found the opposite. The more trans fats participants consumed, the lower their risk of heart-related death. This benefit was largely from naturally occurring trans fats found in animal products.
The catch, however, is that German adults consume lower levels of trans fats than Americans. In this study, trans fats made up less than 1% of participants’ daily energy intake, which is in line with nutrition recommendations. So while findings confirm that low levels of naturally occurring trans fats are safe for heart health, that doesn’t mean the more, the better. It’s true that higher levels of trans fats appeared to have a protective cardiovascular effect, but only among adults with low trans fat intake. The take-home message is that very low levels of trans fats are safe, especially those derived from animal products, but should be limited according to current guidelines.