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Call to ban man-made fat

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Doctors have demanded a ban on man-made trans fats, according to The Guardian.

The news is based on a series of recommendations from the UK Faculty of Public Health, which is concerned about the potentially harmful effects of the manufactured fats. The chemically modified fats, found in biscuits, margarine and ready meals, have been linked to coronary heart disease and increased cholesterol.

The proposal came as part of a series of recommendations designed to improved UK health over the next decade. The call to completely remove trans fats from the British diet echoes bans in Denmark and parts of the US and Canada.

Who has called for a ban?

In addition to the recommendations of the UK Faculty of Public Health, the Food Standards Agency and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that trans fat consumption should be kept to a minimum. The WHO advocate phasing out the use of trans fats. Current UK recommendations are that trans fats should not provide more than 2% of a person’s dietary energy intake.

What are trans fats?

Trans fats are a range fats that can occur naturally in limited amounts in meat and dairy products. They can also be manufactured by chemically altering liquid vegetable oils so that they become solid fats. This chemical process is called hydrogenation. Trans fats may be among the fats found in hydrogenated vegetable oils. These modified vegetable oils are relatively cheap and are used by the food industry to deep fry, bulk up or improve the texture of food.

However, trans fats are not thought to be that widely consumed as many supermarket chains and food manufacturers have already removed them from their products. The Food Standards Agency estimates that in the UK, trans fats make up just 1% of the average person’s energy intake, which is half of the 2% recommended limit.

What are the dangers?

Trans fats have been linked to high cholesterol, raising levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and lowering ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. There is also an associated risk between consumption of trans fats and coronary heart disease. The results of one study also suggest that trans fats might make it more difficult to conceive.

What are they found in?

Trans fats are found in some products that contain hydrogenated fats, such as biscuits, pastries, pies and processed foods. They can also be found in prepared full-fat dairy products, fatty meat products, chips and fried fast foods. In the past, trans fats were commonly found in margarines and other artificial spreads, but they have now been removed from most of these products.

Adding hydrogenated vegetable oil is a cheap way to bulk up food or improve its texture. This means that trans fats may be found in relatively high quantities in fast food. As well as being high in trans fats, these types of foods can also be high in calories and saturated fat, and do not generally play a role in a healthy, balanced diet.

How are they listed on food labels?

You can reduce your intake of trans fats by looking at food labels on pre-packaged foods and being aware of the types of items that may contain them.

In the UK, only margarines and spreads must be labelled with their trans fat content. However, there is no legislation requiring food manufacturers to automatically label the amount of trans fat in their products, although some do voluntarily. If a product contains hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated vegetable fat on its label it may also include trans fats. A number of supermarket chains have policies banning the use of trans fats in their own-brand products. Shop staff may be able to provide further detail.

What steps could be used to phase out trans fats?

The Faculty of Public Health has proposed several steps to help eliminate trans fats from the UK diet. These measures include:

  • Increasing public awareness of the need to reduce intake of saturated and trans fat, replacing them with poly- and monounsaturated alternatives, such as olive, rapeseed, nut and seed oils.
  • Adopting a single, simple food labelling scheme (such as the ‘Traffic Light’ scheme recommended by the Food Standards Agency) under which all food manufacturers and supermarkets must clearly state levels of saturated and trans fats in food products.
  • Putting the food industry under further pressure (including the threat of legislation) to reformulate its products. The emphasis of these changes would be to use less saturated fat, eliminate trans fats, and to offer a wider range of reduced-fat alternatives.
  • Revising the EU Common Agricultural Policy to reduce subsidies of the production of beef and dairy goods, which may be high in saturated fat. In turn, there should be increased support for production of unsaturated oils from sunflower, maize, rapeseed, plus the growth of fruit and vegetables.
  • Improving standards, training and quality control within the catering industry to promote ingredient choices and cooking methods that reduce saturated fat and eliminate trans fats in meals.
  • Reducing saturated and trans fats in food provided in schools, e.g. by increasing nutritional standards for schools.
  • Imposing more effective restrictions on advertising high-fat snacks to children.
  • Continuing the promotion of the 5-A-DAY message, and improving access to good-quality, affordable, fresh fruit and vegetables as a substitute for fatty foods.

Links to the headlines

Doctors demand ban on man-made trans fats. The Guardian, January 18 2010

Further reading

UK Faculty of Public Health: manifesto

UK Faculty of Public Health: fat

Food Standards Agency: statement on trans fats (PDF)

Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition: trans fat report

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