Are trans fats old hat?

Trans fatty acids in the diet was a hot topic for debate started around two decades ago. Trans fats occur both naturally in some animal products like butter, cheese and meat and as industrially modified vegetable fats to create spreads such as margarine, cooking fats for deep-frying and shortening for baking. Trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable fat is used by food manufacturers because it is cheap, shelf-stable, and can withstand high temperatures during processing. The major issue at that time was the industrially produced trans fats, although later similar suspicions have been raised also to naturally occurring trans fats.

Heart disease from trans fats in the diet (Photo credit: Gabriela Camerotti – Flickr)

In an opinion published in 2004, the European Food Safety Authority endorsed findings that linked high levels of trans fat in the diet with increased risk of heart disease, as it increases levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Trans fats might also decrease the levels of good cholesterol, making the situation even worse.

Action has been taken in some countries. In 2003, Denmark became the first country to introduce laws regulating the sale of many foods containing trans fats, a move which effectively bans partially hydrogenated oils. The limit set was 2% of fats and oils destined for human consumption. In 2005, Canada introduced mandatory labelling of all trans fats for pre-packaged food. Argentina and Brazil enforced mandatory labelling of trans fats in 2006, later followed by strict but variable limits for different foods. Similarly, the USA introduced mandatory labelling of prepackaged food in 2006, followed by a legislative limit of 0.5 grams of trans fats in a standard serve of packaged food or a restaurant meal in New York City in 2008 and in California in 2011. Other regions in the USA introduced similar actions. In 2009, Austria and Switzerland and in 2011 Iceland introduced a legislative limit similar to the Danish limit, soon to be followed also by Sweden. Australia and New Zealand organised round table discussions with industry and concerned organisations starting in 2007 to encourage voluntary reductions in the use of trans fats.

Trans fats can be found in fast food (Photo credit: angels – Flickr)

Now researchers from Copenhagen University Hospital and the University of Copenhagen have looked at the impact of the actions taken by different governments and pressure from the public debate over the last decade on the use of industrial trans fats. They analysed samples of foods from across Europe including French fries, chicken nuggets, microwave popcorn, and  samples of biscuits, cakes and wafers which listed partially hydrogenated vegetable fat, synonymous with trans fats, high on the ingredient list. The researchers designed a high trans fat menu from the tested foods and found that in 2009, people in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic could still consume 10-20 g of trans fat in a high trans fat menu – although this was an improvement from more than 30 g in 2005. For people in Germany, France and the UK, the same menu provided less than 2 g of trans fat in 2009, down from 20-30 g four years earlier.

So on the bright side the researchers pointed out that, although on a population level trans fat consumption might now be low, there were still sub-populations in some countries with a very high consumption. They wrote that in 2009, only two EU countries – Austria and Denmark – protected their populations from excessive trans fat consumption with specific legislation. All others relied on food producers to voluntarily reduce trans fat in their foods. And obviously the societal pressure was different in different countries.

The World Health Organisation recommends that trans fat should account for less than 1% of total calories. What’s the situation in your country? Look out for ingredients like ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable fats’.

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