If there’s one thing most doctors, scientists and public health professionals agree, it is that artificially produced trans fats, which are still widely used in food, increase our risk of coronary heart disease. They raise our levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol, deplete our good cholesterol, and are a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Health campaigners have been warning about the risks of trans fats for decades, and seeking to get them out of our food supply. And the evidence of their harm has been mounting by the year.
An FDA panel concluded, in 2003, that they were more harmful than saturated fats. while a 2006 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that people who consume trans fats in everyday foods such as croissants, biscuits and fast food could increase their chance of developing coronary heart disease by more than 20%. It concluded that reducing the amount of trans fatty acids in industrially produced food by 2% could avert 19% of coronary heart attacks a year.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest claims … that trans fat is ‘a uniquely powerful promoter of heart disease,’ and that getting rid of it from the food supply would be ‘the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to reduce heart disease and save thousands of lives.’
Some countries, like Denmark and Switzerland, have regulated to reduce … the amount of trans fat that’s permitted in the food supply. Others, like the USA require them to be declared on a label, so consumers can avoid consuming them, if they wish. The World Health Organisation has called for them to be eliminated from the food supply.
And now, finally, … even the American Food and Drug Administration is moving to ban trans fats from foods, on the grounds that there is no safe level of consumption of trans fat. “Current intake remains a significant public health concern, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says, and there is no safe level of it.’
The FDA said it expected the move to prevent 20,000 heart attacks a year, and 7000 deaths.
So it’s astonishing that our government is doing nothing to reduce our exposure to these harmful, artificial, artery clogging fats.
Despite the fact that a 2006 survey … by Food Standards Australia New Zealand found that up to 15% of New Zealanders are eating too many foods that contain trans fats like deep fried fish and pastry, the government has not regulated to reduce their presence in our food supply, or stipulated that they must be declared on a label, as saturated fats are, so trans fats to remain hidden, and we can’t even work out which foods contain them. Manufacturers are only required to declare them on a label if they make a ‘nutrition claim’ relating to cholesterol or fats, on food.
The government has done nothing, either, to warn consumers about their known and significant health risks, despite growing international evidence that they are a major contributor to heart disease.
Thousands of New Zealanders die every year from … coronary heart disease and trans fats are widely used in our food supply. So why on earth isn’t our government taking such a simple step to reduce our rates of heart disease?
So far all it’s done is urge the food industry to reduce the amount of trans fats in foods, and blandly reassured consumers they needn’treally worry because they’re only found in our food supply in small amounts. The government claims they constitute only 0.6% of our daily kilojoule intake. But a survey by Food Standards Australia New Zealand found that 82% of food had trans fats in it below 2% –meaning that 18% of food had more than 2% of trans fat in food – a shockingly high amount for a substance that is not safe.
Small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in beef and dairy products such as milk and meat–and that probably explains our government’s reluctance to take any action against them.
But the vast majority of trans fat in the food supply come from… oils that have been treated with hydrogen gas to make them solid or semi solid at room temperature. Vegetable oils are heated to very high temperatures and hydrogen is bubbled through them to harden the fat so it won’t melt easily in high temperatures and will have a long shelf life. These semi solid oils, known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, are totally artificial and have no known nutritional value. They are completely unnecessary in our food supply and there are plenty of alternatives for food manufacturers to use instead.
Like saturated fats, trans fat raises bad cholesterol. But unlike saturated fats, it also lowers good cholesterol that protects against heart disease. It may also promote heart disease in other ways, such as by damaging cells that line blood vessels.
These artery-clogging fats are found mainly in deep fried fast foods such as chicken nuggets and deep fried fish and chipsas well as pastries, margarine, and processed foods such as biscuits, donuts, sausage rolls, croissants, muffins, frozen pizzas, and sandwich spreads that are made with margarine or shortening.
Surely consumers have the right to know this, and to choose foods without these dangerous fats. And surely a responsible government would seek to eliminate them from our food supply.
Our government’s inaction of this issue is deplorable and in my view irresponsible. But it’s typical of its laisser-faire, hands-off approach to protecting our food supply.
Sue Kedgley was the Co-Convenor of the Safe Food Campaign from 1994 until 1999 and a Green MP and Food spokesperson for the Green party from 1999 until 2010-1.
She is the author of Eating Safely in a Toxic World, a book about food issues in New Zealand. She has launched numerous campaigns and worked tirelessly around food and food safety issues for the benefit of us all.