February 22/Toronto/Shaw Media -- While the food industry applauded Health Canada’s decision to approve a new claim that advises Canadians to replace saturated fat with vegetable oil, health experts and nutritionists say the move is not in the best interests of Canadians and will likely mislead consumers.

The Vegetable Oil Industry of Canada celebrated when it announced it obtained support from the federal agency to promote vegetable oil as a tool to lower cholesterol.

The claim, which tells consumers to replace sources of saturated fat with poly- and monounsaturated fats found in vegetable oil, has been developed into a logo that is allowed to be plastered on certain products.

“We are pleased that Health Canada supports the vegetable oil industry in providing consumers with this important positive direction on what dietary fats they should be eating to reduce cholesterol levels," Sean McPhee, president of VOIC, said in a statement.

However, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a University of Ottawa professor and former family medicine chair of the Canadian Obesity Network, says the agency’s decision to back the claim was only made to “appease” the industry and will not help Canadians sift through a plethora of unfounded health claims.

“The last thing we need for our supermarket shelves is more claims that the food industry can use to sell non-impressive nutritional fare,” he said.

“The fronts of packages are fair game for food manufactures to utilize to try to dupe Canadians into thinking the boxes they buy off the shelves will help,” he said.

VOIC pointed to studies that have shown that replacing saturated fat ** derived from animal products, dairy and some plant-based sources -- with unsaturated fats derived from vegetables and plants led to a cholesterol reduction of 0.4-2.8% for every gram of fat replaced. This research was submitted to Health Canada.

However, Freedhoff warned that in the grocery store world of nutrition fact panels, consumers will end up buying more of these products with a Health Canada seal of approval, thinking they are healthy, recommended options instead of better alternatives.

“The nuanced wording that suggests people should be replacing and not adding will get lost on consumers,” he said, noting that there are not any substantial findings that show that promoting health claims on packaging helps overall health.

Instead, consumers end up buying -- and eating -- more of a product thinking it is an “inherently healthy option.”

Freedhoff said that if Ottawa was interested in Canadians’ health and rising rates of cardiovascular disease, it would implement regulations on trans fat in the food supply instead.

“We’ll see this a lot on margarines; we’ll see it on bottles of cooking oil; and some might start pouring oodles of olive oil or canola oil into salad. Yes, it’s a healthful ingredient, but if it’s not replacing other fats it might be increasing waistlines,” he warned.

Members of VOIC, a not-for profit group composed of 70,000 oilseed growers across Canada, also include developers of shortening, salad dressings, mayonnaise and dessert toppings.

Marisa Falconi, a Toronto-based nutritionist, said that in some cases, vegetable oils, or monounsaturated fats, are not as stable as those that are saturated.

“This means that cooking with monounsaturated fats at high temperatures will cause free radical production. Free radicals are the things that damage our DNA and trigger degenerative diseases such as cancer, and we want to avoid this at all costs,” she said.

She noted that most vegetable oils found in the local grocery stores are heavily processed. Canola oil, for example, is processed using high heat and petroleum by-products.

“Things you wouldn’t consume if you were aware that they were in your food,” she said.

Freedhoff said that to even the playing field for consumers, officials should foster food literacy so Canadians understand how to read what’s in their products.

“If the product needs to claim it’s healthy it probably isn’t. Transforming raw ingredients in cooking – that’s what we should be encouraging more of,” he said.

Falconi agreed.

“The solution is not to eliminate saturated fats, but instead to eat packaged stuff in moderation and utilize saturated fats in their whole food form. If monounsaturated fats and vegetable oils are used to replace saturates, similar problems will still arise, and health will still be an issue,” she said.

 From the February 23, 2012, Prepared Foods' Daily News.