We‘ve all seen the headlines warning against the eating of trans fats – a type of both natural (occurring in milk and body fat of some animals) and man-made unsaturated fatty acids – which have been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt to raise LDL (often referred to as “bad“) cholesterol and lower HDL (or “good”) cholesterol, thereby increasing our risk of heart disease and stroke.
It now appears, however, that these fats, often used in commercially-baked goods and many other products to improve taste and shelf-life, are also bad for our noggins – a new study from the University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine has found that dietary trans fatty acids (dTFAs) play an important role in the worsening memories of men aged 45 and under.
The study, published in July 17 in the science journal PLoS One, looked at the data obtained from 1.018 healthy male subjects from a larger statin drug trial who were asked to complete a dietary survey and a memory test involving word recall. The test consisted of 104 cards with 82 unique and 22 repeated words, which the study subjects had to identify.
On average, the recruited men were able to remember 85 words; however, for each additional gram of trans fats consumed per day, performance dropped by 0.76 words, which translates to a whopping 21 fewer words etched in the memories of young males consuming the highest amounts of dTFAs observed in the study (around 28 g/day), compared to otherwise similar men whose diets were dTFA-free.
The effect persisted even after adjusting for age, exercise habits, education, ethnicity and mood.
“Trans fats were most strongly linked to worse memory in men during their high productivity years,” said study lead author Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD, and Professor of Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Trans fat consumption has previously shown adverse associations to behaviour and mood —other pillars of brain function. However, to our knowledge a relation to memory or cognition had not been shown.”
While there was no association between dTFA consumption and memory loss in people over 45 years of age, Golomb thinks it might be due to dietary effects showing up more clearly in younger adults – insults and injuries to the brain accrue with age and add variability to memory scores that can swamp researchers‘ ability to identify diet effects.
Even though the study, observational in design, was not able to establish a clear causal link, it certainly provides yet another good-enough reason to stay away from dietary trans fatty acids.
Since the discovery of the harmful effects of these useful-yet-perilous fats, their consumption went down by about 78% between 2003 and 2012, driven by manufacturers removing them from their products (and, more often than not, replacing them with saturated fat, which is only slightly better) and having to list them on nutrition labels.
Just this Tuesday, following a 2-year public comment period, the FDA had finally decreed that artificial trans fats in processed foods are not “generally recognized as safe“ and have given food producers 3 years to completely rid of them in their products.
Currently, most common sources of dTFAs are microwave popcorn, shelf-stable baked goods, non-dairy creamer and fast foods.