Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trans-Fatty Acids, An Ongoing Problem

image from Wikipedia

Trans-fatty acids (transfats or TFAs) occur in industrially hydrogenated oils--such as margarine. The process of hydrogenation (adding hydrogen atom pairs to, in this case, unsaturated fats in the presence of a catalyst) converts unsaturated fats into saturated fats (fats that are solid at room temperature) and TFAs. In the early 1900s, apparently half of the whale oil being harvested was treated this way to create a butter substitute similar to margarine.
That TFAs,when consumed in volumes of 5 grams a day or more, lead to an increased chance (23%) of coronary heart disease, is well established. Soft margarine contains far fewer transfats than a fully hydrogenated hard margarine, and some, like Becel, use a different technique for hydrogenation that produces very few transfats. Canada has only voluntary limits on transfat content in food, as does Europe. BMJ online is reporting:
In 2005, a large serving of French fries and nuggets, 100g of microwavable popcorn, and 100g of cake or biscuits or wafers provided more than 30g/100g of TFA in five EU countries in Eastern Europe and between 20g and 30g in eight Western European countries.

In 2009 the analysis revealed that the TFA content in French fries and nuggets had fallen substantially in all the European countries studied. But while the TFA content of popcorn, cakes and biscuits had fallen in Western European countries, this was not the case in Eastern Europe where it remained high.

The same portions still provided high TFA content of between 10g and 20g in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.  But the equivalent menu in Germany, France and the UK provided less than 2g.

Clearer food labelling is one way of curbing trans fatty acid intake, but most countries still rely on food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the TFA content of their products, the authors point out.

Only a few countries—Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and Iceland—have gone down the legislative route and forced industry to limit the amount of TFA used in foods to 2% of the total fat.

But foods containing trans fats, which can comprise up to 60% of the total fat content, can still legally be sold as shop bought packaged goods, or unpackaged in restaurants and fast food outlets elsewhere in Europe, the authors emphasise.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go. And yet, somehow creating actual regulations around food safety is off the table. Maybe I'm just too old-school; food purity regulation has been a responsibility of government since, well, forever--just as the problem of food adulteration has been around forever. And it strikes me that government failing in ensuring the provision of good food is a failed government. 

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