Food and Behaviour Research

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16 April 2010 - BBC News - Medics call for ban on trans-fats in UK food

By Emma Wilkinson - Health reporter, BBC News

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

The scientific evidence for the dangers of industrially-produced trans fats (toxic fats found in hydrogenated vegetable oils) is now undeniable.

Writing in the British Medical Journal this week, leading public health experts from the US point out that trans fats currently kill at least 7000 people in the UK every year  - and banning them (as Denmark did in 2006, and New York in 2007) is perfectly achieveable. 

Without a legal ban, their use will continue. To cite 'average' levels of consumption (as the food industry and government agencies do in this article), and to pretend that 'voluntary action' will lead to their 'virtual elimination' appears irresponsibly complacent if not deceitful.

As the President of the UK Faculty for Public health has made clear in the article below, "This is a major health inequalities issue" because the UK 'average' conceals very wide variations in dietary intake (see Stender et al 2006 for some shocking data on the trans fats that can be found in just one serving of chicken nuggets and chips). This means that without a government ban, low income groups, and anyone else who relies on takeaway meals and 'fast foods' will remain highly vulnerable to the increased risks of heart disease and other serious health problems to which trans fats are now firmly linked.

Calls to ban trans-fats from all foods in the UK have been backed by US public health experts.

Trans-fats - solid fats found in margarines, cakes and fast food - are banned in some countries.

An editorial in the British Medical Journal said 7,000 deaths a year could be prevented by a 1% reduction in consumption.

But the Food Standards Agency said the UK's low average consumption made a complete ban unnecessary.

In January this year, the UK Faculty of Public Health called for the consumption of trans-fats (also know as trans fatty acids) to be virtually eliminated.

It says that although trans-fats make up 1% of the average UK adult food energy intake - below the 2% advised as a dangerous level - there are sections of the population where intake is far higher and these groups are being put at risk.

In the BMJ article, doctors from Harvard Medical School backed this view and said bans in Denmark and New York City had effectively eliminated trans-fats, without reducing food availability, taste, or affordability.

Heart health

Many studies have shown harmful effects of trans-fats on heart health.

They are used to extend shelf-life but have no nutritional value and, like saturated fats, they raise blood cholesterol levels which increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

The BMJ article also points out there is no evidence that such legislation leads to harm from increased use of saturated fats.

The doctors wrote that based on current disease rates, a strategy to reduce consumption of trans-fats by even 1% of total energy intake would be expected to prevent 11,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths annually in England alone.

Commenting on the article, Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said:

"There are great differences in the amount of trans-fats consumed by different people and we are particularly concerned about young people and those with little disposable income who eat a lot of this type of food.

"This is a major health inequalities issue."

In 2007, the Food Standards Agency carried out a review of trans-fats and concluded UK consumption was lower than countries such as the US and that voluntary action from food manufacturers had been highly successful.

They said current UK average consumption "was not a concern".

Victoria Taylor, senior heart health dietician at the British Heart Foundation, said UK voluntary measures by the food industry had achieved significant reductions in the amount of trans-fats in food.

"This is good progress but we still need to do more to make sure that the industrially produced trans-fats don't creep back into our nation's diets."

Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the Food and Drink Federation, said: "We agree that it is important to maintain a healthily balanced diet in which trans-fats are consumed within the safe levels recommended by the FSA and that is why artificial trans-fats have been virtually eliminated from processed foods in the UK."

TRANS FATS

  • They are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, turning oily foods into semi-solid foods
  • Used to extend shelf life of products
  • Can raise levels of "bad" cholesterol
  • Even a small reduction in consumption can cut heart disease
  • They have no nutritional benefits