January 14, 2011

CWRU Medical Student Calls for Change to FDA Labeling of Trans Fat

Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt

What really are the nutrition facts on those chips you’re eating? That’s what Eric Brandt, student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, set out to uncover with his research on trans fat. Aware that there often are hidden trans fats in foods, Brandt wanted to discover exactly why that is. Now, his findings, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, are getting national media attention from outlets like CBS News and MSNBC and could lead to new labeling regulations from the Food and Drug Administration.

Brandt, who hails from Sterling Heights, Mich., and is on track to graduate from the School of Medicine in 2013, found that current FDA regulations allow foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat to be listed as 0 grams trans fat (the FDA policy requires items with less than 5 grams trans fat to be listed in 0.5-gram increments, and food producers can round down to the lower increment). So when individuals eat three servings of foods with “0 grams trans fat,” they really could be ingesting nearly 1.5 grams of trans fat unknowingly, exceeding the recommended daily intake of 1.11 grams. Eating trans fat can lead to coronary heart disease, heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, diabetes, high cholesterol and other serious health issues, Brandt said.

So what happens next? The Daily spoke with Brandt to find out.

Q: When did you start doing research on trans fat, and why?
A: The idea came when I was in undergrad at University of Michigan – Dearborn, and when I got to Case [Western Reserve] I decided to pursue it. I started doing the research in December 2009 and found a mentor, Dr. Scott Frank, [director of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine Master of Public Health Program,] who helped me with some aspects of the publication process.

Q: Why do you think the FDA labels trans fat like this?
A: I think there are many reasons. First, labeling trans fat is a relatively new thing and it has only been [in existence] since 2006, so it was a big deal to get it labeled at all. [Additionally,] there has not yet been a strong push for more accurate labeling of trans fat, food companies would prefer their products to look healthier than they are and … a revision to the law has yet to be suggested.

Q: What should the FDA do to fix this?
A: I think the best way would be to revise the labeling of trans fat on food labels, as I suggested in my article. This would be by reporting trans fat content in 0.1-gram increments, rounding up when the hundredth digit is 0.05 and down if 0.04.

Q: What is your next step in getting the FDA to change their policy? Is it possible?
A: I hope I will be able to work with the FDA to find a solution to the problem by revising the law. I think this is completely within reach because the FDA strives to get accurate information about food contents to the public to help improve health and prevent disease. Also, it helps that the topic has grabbed the attention of the media and that people don’t like being misled.

A contact at the FDA has requested the article, so they have already shown some interest. I hope they will contact me, but if not I hope to make contact with them. I am not sure how long the process will take, but I plan to work on it for the next couple of years if need be.

Q: Is there really any way of staying away from trans fats in products?
A: The best way to protect yourself against misidentified labeling would be to avoid foods where trans fat content is suspected—foods that have partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredient list, especially. There is no way of knowing exactly how much trans fat is in a food, but you can be confident there is trans fat in a food if it has hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil.

Q: Why did you choose Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine?

A: I chose to attend CWRU because of the small group style of learning. I have found that working closely with my classmates on difficult material benefits my learning much more than if I was attending a school with a lecture-based curriculum. Also, Case offers great clinical opportunities during the first two years before going to the clinical years and the opportunity for me to manage my time as I see fit by large amounts of self-directed learning time.

Posted by: Emily Mayock, January 14, 2011 08:13 AM | News Topics: School of Medicine

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