Baby food, breast milk may contain harmful trans fat

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Consumers are going to start getting more details on the levels of trans fat in the foods we love, with new nutritional labelling that goes into effect in just over two years. But many nutrition experts are angry that foods made for children under the age of two will not have to comply with the new labelling rules.

Many studies have found a link between trans fat and heart disease. Canadians already ingest large amounts of trans through hydrogenated oils found in cookies, chips and baked goods. But many parents may not realize they're feeding the potentially dangerous substance to their babies.

That has infant nutrition advocate Elizabeth Sterken of INFACT Canada angry.

"Even in these baby foods, we see partially hydrogenated fats," Sterken says, holding up a package of infant cereal.

"Trans fatty acids replace the essential fatty acids (EFAs) that are needed for brain growth."

She's frustrated that foods designed for children won't require trans fats to be listed under Canada's new nutrition labeling laws that take effect in mid-December, 2005.

"We want the right to the best possible health for our infants and young children. And we're denied that right when we don't have good labelling," Sterken says.

Health Canada says infant formulas, called "human milk substitutes" are prohibited from carrying a Nutrition Facts table because they are subject to their own regulations under the Food and Drug Regulations.

Health Canada says producers don't intentionally add trans to baby formula by hydrogenating oils -- the trans can also be a byproduct of heating oils too high and too quickly.

"Don't forget the baby is getting formula or breast milk so the baby is getting other sources of fats," says Margaret Cheney, Health Canada's chief of the bureau of nutritional sciences. "And this would be minute compared to giving them a donut."

Even if foods are labelled, studies show some babies are still getting high doses of trans because their mothers are eating it. Research from the University of British Columbia shows trans fats pass through placenta to the fetus. In Europe, another study found that the higher the trans in the diet of pregnant women, the more likely they were to give birth prematurely and have smaller babies.

Once born, the trans fat ingested by mothers is passed to their babies through breast milk. In fact, a study by Health Canada found Canadian breast milk contained among the highest levels of trans reported.

"I have grave concerns about the fat type in the diet of pregnant and lactating mothers and our young children right through to adulthood," says Bruce Holub, a nutrition researcher at the University of Guelph.

(It is important to note that during the first two years of life infants and toddlers need a high fat diet. Low fat foods are not appropriate in the first two years of a child's growth.)

Dr. Sheila Innes of the University of British Columbia says studies show that babies born with higher levels of trans fat have lower levels of essential omega 3 fatty acids. The nutrient comes from good oils like fish oils and fuels proper brain growth and eye development.

"With trans fatty acids, if they are high in the diet, the essentially fatty acids are low. What is the cause and what is the consequence we don't know," notes Innes. "But if pregnant women and young babies are eating lots of snack foods, they are not eating enough fresh fruits and grains."

In Denmark, regulators have taken a dim view of trans. The country has adopted legislation that limits trans fats to between two and five grams per 100 grams of oil, depending on the product. Since that's a tiny amount, the rules are essentially a ban on trans fats. For example, a product labelled trans-fat free in Canada and the U.S. can contain approximately triple the ratio of trans fats to total fats allowable in Denmark.

"Instead of educating mothers about the dangers of trans fat, we have simply removed them," says Dr. Steed Stender of the Danish Nutrition Council

Danes now eat just a fraction of the more than 10 grams eaten by Canadians every day.

"It is a pity for Canada that mothers have the opportunity to ingest so much," says Stender. "And that was the very reason we had this legislation in Denmark. We don't want these mothers to have the possibility of having junk food. We can't avoid all junk food but we can at least remove products that have a suspicion of harmful effect."

Health Canada says it isn't prepared to legislate any limits on trans in food here. The best it can do is ask manufacturers to label it. Baby food will remain exempt from that measure.

We asked Health Canada whether they would revisit the issue of trans labelling on baby foods ... they responded by saying they will be monitoring foods, and sent us this statement, Oct. 30, 2003:

''Monitoring of the trans fat content of foods would entail analyzing samples of foods known to contain significant amounts of trans fatty acids beginning next year and continuing after the effective date of nutrition labelling (December 12, 2005) to determine if there is a trend to reducing the trans fat content of these foods.

In the case of infants, current science indicates that as long as the infant is receiving sufficient essential fatty acids, trans fatty acids do not have a deleterious effect on growth and development. While human milk can be a significant source of trans fatty acids, it also contains the long chain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, the most important metabolites of the essential fatty acids. Infant formulas contain small amounts of trans fatty acids formed during the processing of the vegetable oils used as a source of fat. Health Canada did not require the labelling of the saturated and trans fat in infant foods for fear that mothers might choose to feed their babies low fat or fat-free foods instead.

Health Canada has in the past analyzed the trans fatty acids in human milk as part of a monitoring program which tracks the levels of various substances in human milk. It is planned to repeat the trans fatty acid analyses next year and again in the future. If the trans fatty acid content of the food supply is reduced, there will inevitably be a reduction in the trans fatty acid content of human milk.

If nursing mothers wishing to reduce their intake of trans fatty acids, they can do so by avoiding commercially fried foods and baked goods containing fat, not baking with shortening or stick margarines and choosing tub margarines, preferably with trans fat labelling."

With a report from CTV's Avis Favaro

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