Media Triggers Short-Term Decline In Trans Fat Sales

A new study suggests that an increase in the number of news stories describing the health risks of trans fats seem to be affecting the nation’s shopping habits.

However, the effect does not appear to last long.

Scientists found that shoppers in Los Angeles had a tendency to purchase fewer food products containing artery-clogging trans fats in the week following media coverage about the fats. The effects waned shortly thereafter.

The study indicates a need for sustained public health initiatives to remind consumers to limit their intake of trans fat.

“While news coverage is a potentially valuable source of information, and one that can help the public to make informed decisions about their health, this study shows that news coverage alone is not enough to sustain changes in consumer behavior,” said Dr. Dominick L. Frosch of the University of California Los Angeles, the study’s co-researcher, in a statement.

Trans fats, formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil during processing to make food solidify, not only raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, but can also lower levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol.

Foods labeled as containing “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” include trans fat.  That has typically included most commercially prepared baked and fried foods, such as crackers, cookies, breads, chips and French fries.  However, restaurants and manufacturers have been increasingly removing trans fats from their food.

Since 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required all food makers to label the amount of trans fat in their products if the amount exceeds 0.5 grams per serving.

However, “there has been no coordinated effort to educate the public about the dangers of trans fat,” since the policy went into effect, Frosch said.

A recent study of U.S. adults found that although most were aware they should avoid trans fats, few could actually name any foods that typically contain them.

In the current study, Frosch and colleague Dr. Jeff Niederdeppe of Cornell University analyzed weekly sales data from a leading Los Angeles grocery chain for a 129-week period between 2005 and 2007.

They examined the relationship between local news coverage of trans fats and sales of several products rich in trans-fat such as hot dogs, buttered popcorn, stick margarine, vegetable shortening, packaged cookies and biscuits.

The researchers found that, in general, news coverage seemed to trigger a decline in trans-fat sales.  The influence was stronger after the FDA labeling rule went into effect, the study showed.

However, the impact of each media campaign waned after just one week.

“In the absence of broader changes in food policy and public education,” said Niederdeppe in the statement.

“News coverage may be insufficient to produce lasting reductions in trans-fat purchases and consumption.”

The study was published in the May 2009 American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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