Research Feature

Making the News

Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt

Most research that gets published in medical journals doesn’t get picked up by the mainstream press—but occasionally, a study makes its way into the limelight.

That’s what happened to Eric Brandt, whose research on hidden trans fats in food ended up in national media outlets like The Washington Post and CBS News.

As an undergraduate in biochemistry at the University of Michigan—Dearborn, Brandt noticed that the amount of each kind of fat listed on food labels didn’t add up to the total amount, but he put off pursuing it until he entered the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve. In the university program, he used the research opportunities to study the issue. “When I got into medical school, I had a little bit better perspective on what I could do and had a little more help around me to point me in the right direction,” he says.

Brandt’s research, which took about eight months, was primarily a review of the law and the current basic science bench research on the issue, as well as the clinical research that had been done on trans fat to that point. He discovered that foods that have a significant amount of trans fat—relative to the limit recommended by nutrition experts—can by law be labeled as “zero trans fat.”

As trans fats can raise cholesterol and are linked to heart disease and diabetes, the daily recommended limit is set to just 1.11 grams. Yet because FDA labeling requirements permit food companies to list any food that has 0.49 grams or less of trans fat to round down to zero, Brandt discovered that even conscientious, label-reading consumers could eat three servings of supposedly trans-fat-free foods that have 0.49 grams of trans fat and exceed the 1.11-gram limit—without ever knowing it. His mission was to alert the public to this potential health hazard.

Scott Frank, MD, director of the School of Medicine Master of Public Health program and associate professor of family medicine and community health, guided Brandt through the process, and Brandt worked hard to learn about publishing—from choosing a journal to submitting his paper to making corrections suggested by the editors.

Once the study was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, Brandt worked with the school to craft a press release to send to news outlets. His first interviews were with ABC News Online and the Chicago Tribune. In the Tribune article, the FDA responded to Brandt’s study, saying they’re considering more sensitive techniques for measuring trans fat in foods.

After completing his coursework, Brandt aims to go into internal medicine and hopes to eventually specialize in cardiology. Bradley Gill just matched into the urology residency program at Cleveland Clinic. And Geoffrey Yang is completing an internal medicine internship at Cedars-Sinai before completing a dermatology residency at University of California—Irvine. He hopes to continue his research by delving into more detail on the connection between a previous cancer and cutaneous melanoma using the SEER Medicare database, which includes more personal details than the SEER database.

“I think my research at the NIH and at Case Western Reserve was phenomenal and very important in terms of my career development,” says Yang. “I think it’s allowed me to realize what I see myself doing in the future, and how I want to incorporate research into my career.”