In Europe, industry efforts to remove trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated oil from the food supply have been fast and effective. But many food manufacturers in North America are still dithering.
Doctors called for a trans fat ban in the UK earlier this month, even though voluntary industry efforts are thought to have brought trans fat consumption down to safe levels there. Meanwhile, it emerged that a two-year trial period for industry to voluntarily reduce trans fats has failed in Canada.
And the debate goes on in the United States. Current trans fat bans only encompass areas that cover about 20 percent of the US population, but the latest proposed ban, in Louisville, Kentucky, has been rejected.
In Denmark, where it has been illegal for foods to contain more than two percent trans fats since 2004, deaths from heart disease have dropped by 20 percent.
The pressure on industry is already high, but if food manufacturers in some regions can switch out trans fats while others do not, it’s time to get tough.
Clogging arteries for 100 years
Artificial trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated oils have been around for about a century, and were even marketed from the 1960s as a healthy alternative to the saturated fats found in butter. But from the late 1980s evidence started to accumulate showing that trans fats could be linked to increased rates of cardiovascular disease. Now, more than 20 years later, we know that they not only raise levels of bad cholesterol in the blood, but also lower levels of good cholesterol, clogging arteries and causing heart disease. Not even saturated fats are as bad as that.
In fact, a 2006 review of the Nurses’ Health Study in the United States, a major source of evidence on the harmful effects of trans fats, found that for each additional two percent of calories consumed from trans fat, risk of coronary heart disease nearly doubled, but the same increased risk was seen only with a 15 percent increase in saturated fat.
Health authorities all over the world have recommended that consumption of trans fats should be reduced to the trace amounts that occur naturally in meat and dairy. So why are there still those in the food industry that haven’t moved to take such a deadly ingredient out of their products?
The problem is, despite the health impacts, artificial trans fats have been a boon for the food industry – oils have a higher melting point when they are partially hydrogenated, are much cheaper than other oils or fats, and baked goods have a longer shelf life.
We now know these fats are harmful and provide no nutritional benefit, and there is a ballooning choice of alternatives. Sure, manufacturers should be given some time to phase them out, but at this stage, there is no excuse.
If the Louisville ban had gone ahead, for example, over a million more people would have benefited from a virtually trans-free food supply, but instead they are the latest to be subjected to education, in other words, told to be vigilant about the possibility that foods could contain a potentially lethal substance. What?
This is perverse.
Voluntary reductions and public education campaigns seem to sit well in the United States, where there is strong support for personal freedom of choice in many matters considered reasonable to regulate elsewhere. However, any support for the ‘right’ to eat and cook with foods that contain deadly trans fats is the clearest proof that education campaigns are failing.
The current piecemeal approach is not good enough. Governments have spent enough public money assessing industry efforts. And they have found that voluntary reductions are not always effective.
It’s time to look to Denmark’s example and get trans fats out of our food.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.