Trans fats: is it time for an Irish ban?
These artificial fats are linked to heart disease and provide no benefit. Yet foods high in trans fats are still available here
A young girl holds a sign during an anti-trans fat rally in New York, one of the first places where trans fats were banned. Photograph: Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
The Food and Drug Administration in the US is set to ban artery-clogging trans fats, deeming them an unsafe ingredient. The move, announced in early November, is uncontroversial. Scientists are in agreement: these artificial fats are strongly linked to heart disease and provide no benefit. Yet foods high in trans fats are still available in Ireland.
A report in the British Medical Journal earlier this year found there would be about 1,000 fewer premature deaths from cardiovascular disease or stroke in Ireland if better food policy was followed. This included reducing trans fat, which accounted for 22 per cent of the predicted reduction, as well as reducing salt and saturated fat in our diet.
In 2003, Denmark ruled that fats in food ingredients must contain less than 2 per cent trans fat, effectively enforcing a ban. The Austrians, Icelanders and Swiss have since moved against them. Norway and Hungary will introduce limits in 2014.
The food industry in Europe has reduced its use, but you can still find them in cakes, biscuits, wafers and donuts. Just two to seven grams of trans fat – 20 to 60 calories’ worth – can cause harm. They raise LDL cholesterol – the bad kind – and lower levels of the good HDL cholesterol.
“These changes promote heart disease, but they are still not enough to explain the 20 per cent or so increased risk of cardiovascular disease if you have five grams of fat per day for a prolonged period,” says Prof Steen Stender of Copenhagen University Hospital, a leading trans fat expert who led the charge against them in Denmark. He says Ireland should also act now against trans fat.
You could consume a meal containing 30-40 grams of industrial trans fats, says Stender, which is then built into cells and organs in your body, where they remain for months. He adds that trans fats also cause your heart to beat irregularly and should be described as a “metabolic poison”. They also affect the lining of blood vessels and gateway proteins in cells and appear to promote inflammation; some studies link them to diabetes.
Natural trans fats
Trans fats can come naturally from dairy products, but in very low quantities (although there is concern over natural trans fats in supplements). The vast majority are made by heating unsaturated plant oil in a chemical reactor with hydrogen so as to change the structure of the oil to produce saturated fats. These are attractive to industry because they are stable during deep-frying, boast a long shelf life and in semi-solid state can be used to improve palatability of baked confectioneries.
In Europe large food companies replaced trans fat, often with palm oil (see panel). Unilever decided to rid its products of trans fat in the 1990s and they are no longer present in quality margarines. “This is a situation where we can complement the food industry. They responded and took these fats out,” says nutrition scientist Dr Helen Roche of University College Dublin, although she suspects some cheaper food producers might still be using them. Back in 2008, a survey of 100 pre-packaged food products by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that 80 contained no or low levels of trans fats. It plans to survey products next year for saturated fats and trans fats.
Many scientists are critical that some European countries are depending on industry to self-regulate to protect the public health. Regulation of trans fat in Ireland is a decision for the Minister of Health.
“The intake of trans fats in the UK and Ireland and most European countries is very low due to voluntary reductions [by industry], but there can be groups with high intakes,” warns Stender. Countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and especially the Balkan countries still make plenty of goods with very high amounts of trans fat. And export them.
Six months ago, Stender visited Paris, Berlin, London and Malmo in Sweden and discovered foods loaded with trans fat in small ethnic shops. In Sweden, the confectioneries sold well and had made it into larger supermarkets. There is nothing to stop a food manufacturer selling container loads of cheap wafer, cakes and biscuits loaded with trans fat into Ireland; it would harm public health, but not break the law.
Dr Ivan Perry at University College Cork, an author of the BMJ study, says data on trans fat consumption in Ireland is poor and he suspects some minorities and those budget shopping could be eating way above the average. He says the recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration should give a clear signal to Europe and to Ireland. “The evidence is compelling,” he argues. “Public health scientists have been calling for a ban for years now.”
THE REPLACEMENT: PALM OIL PROBLEMS
In the 1990s, scientists began uncovering the ill effects of trans fats. Many food companies switched to palm oil. “Manufacturers chose palm oil because they needed a semi-solid fat for instant noodles, potato chips, cake mixes, cookies and other baked goods. Making attractive baked goods with liquid oils is harder. Palm oil has the right solidity, and it is stable and cheap,” says Martijn Katan, professor of nutrition at the University of Amsterdam. However, “it is also high in saturated fat and raises LDL cholesterol.
“The clear winners of the trans fat wars are palm oil producers. Many food manufacturers switched to palm oil. When I started my research into trans [fats] in 1986, I had no idea that our results would accelerate the destruction of tropical forests.”
The World Wildlife Fund says the palm oil industry in Indonesia is culpable for clear-cutting forests and is an important contributor to the dramatic reduction in orang-utan populations.