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There is a worldwide trend to phase out industrial trans fats from foods, since there is ample scientific evidence that this substance has negative health effects.
Fortunately, many developed countries have already (or are in the process of introducing) introduced strict laws prohibiting the usage of trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils, or enforced mandatory labelling. These restrictions resulted in almost complete removal of these harmful substances from all the foods either produced or imported to these countries.
Despite this global trend, strangely the Australian and New Zealand governments sit idle, hoping that trans fats will get phased out voluntarily. This means that some of us could currently be consuming products loaded with these harmful substances without even knowing it.
Find out why the Australian and New Zealand governments resist assuming a more active position, e.g. by simply introducing mandatory labelling and allowing people to make informed decisions on what they eat.
If the government chooses not to protect the public, by prohibiting the usage of Trans Fats (TFA) in foods, we should at least have the right to know if the foods contain these substances, in order to make an informed decision. Unfortunately, this is the not the case in Australia and New Zealand.
Restrictions on trans fats usage worldwide
Many European countries have introduced strict laws against the use of trans fats in foods. This ban includes not only products produced locally, but also imported products. As a result, countries such as Denmark are almost free of trans fats, making it basically impossible to ingest an amount above the internationally established safe limit.
Other countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, have introduced strict labelling laws. These laws force all food labels to display the amounts of trans fats, if the amount is above a certain predefined limit. The U.S. is also currently in the process of phasing out trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils. This process is to be completed by 2018.
NOTE: identifying trans fats on the labels can be tricky sometimes, since some manufacturers use clever techniques to obscure this information.
Why did Australia and NZ decide not to restrict or label trans fats?
Australia and New Zealand share a different point of view. No restrictions are imposed on producers or importers, either to declare or to limit the trans fats contents.
Here is a screen shot of Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) consumer information page (1):
- They estimate that currently the trans fats consumption is within the safe limit in the majority of the population. Therefore, the governments consider that there is no need to enforce restrictions or to impose mandatory labelling.
- They believe that mandatory labelling, displaying the trans fats contents, may cause confusion among consumers with a limited knowledge of nutrition, causing them to make the wrong decisions.
Lets’ examine each point separately.
The results of the 2011–12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (NNPAS), component of the Australian Health Survey, were released on May 2014. These included the TFA concentration data, available to FSANZ in 2009. This survey concluded that the mean TFA intake of 90% of Australians (similar results for NZ) of 2 years and above was estimated at 1.4 g/day, representing 0.6% of the daily dietary energy, which is below the 1% recommended limit set by the WHO.
Since the survey was based on 2009 information on TFA concentrations, the FSANZ conducted a new survey in October 2013 in order to assess if the TFA levels in foods had changed. This was a small survey that, in summary, included 500 samples, from 39 different products produced in Australia and New Zealand. These products ranged from takeaway foods, fats and oils, snacks, meat products and baked products.
They concluded that the highest median concentration of TFAs was found in oil spreads, vegetable oils, croissants, custard baked products and prepared pastry. Nevertheless, approximately 86% of the sample had a concentration of TFAs < 2g/100g of fat, which is within the limit adopted for manufactured TFA in Denmark. They also concluded that the concentrations hadn’t changed significantly since the 2009 survey. Therefore, they anticipated that the TFA dietary intake remained low.
As a result, since there were acceptable amounts of trans fats in the sampled foods, the ministers responsible for food regulation accepted the advice of the FSANZ that labelling is not required.
So, what is problem with these estimates?
The results mentioned above are, in fact, positive and give some reassurances to Australian and New Zealander consumers. However, there are some problems with these estimates. This has raided doubt if some part of the population might be at risk of having more TFAs than the safe limit.
Here are some of the potential problems with these estimates:
- The NNPAS reports that there may have been some under-reporting, which they can’t accurately estimate. Therefore, there might be nutrients and energy missing from the respondents’ intakes. They also found it difficult to accurately account for the young school aged children’s food intake, since they are not always able to remember and parents are not always aware of their children’s intake.
- No estimates are provided for different social economic groups, which have different diets. This might be especially relevant for lower social-economic groups.
- The nutrient data provided by the FSANZ to the NNPAS should be considered as an approximation. The list is not exhaustive and factors such as the variability in production and processing are not accounted. This can influence the food composition.
- The FZANS 2013 survey estimated the median consumption of TFAs using a small sample of foods. The issue is that those foods may vary in TFA levels and the chosen samples may not have been fully representative of this variation.
In the 86% of the sample with concentrations of TFAs < 2g/100g of fat, the study excluded pizza, meat pies, sausage rolls, croissants, desserts and custard baked goods, claiming that they may contain considerable proportions of ruminant TFA.
We know that ruminant TFAs are not the problem. We also know that, according to this study the majority of the products from this excluded group have a total TFA higher than the 2g/100g of fat (e.g. one of the sausage rolls analysed had a TFA of 10g/100g of fat).
Although the claim might seem sensible, there are a few things that need to be addressed. There is no proof that those products are industrial TFA free and even if they have a small amount of TFA, this adds to the mean daily consumption.
The following is a table of very high in trans fats products sold in Australia and New Zealand with TFAs well above 2g/100g of fat – a limit used by FSANZ as a reference. This alarming data has been taken from this very same survey. If these are your favourite foods, you might be in trouble!
Food type Total TFA (g/100g of fat) Popcorn 18.1 Prepared Pastry 10.8 Sausage Rolls 10 Meat Pies 8.1 Custard Baked Goods 7.4 Croissant 6.7 Cream Biscuits 6.4 Desserts 6.4 Scones 5.9 Restaurant Style Takeaway Dishes 5.2 Sauces 5 Sweet Muffins & Banana Bread 4.9 Donut 4.7 Dry Mix Pasta 4.7 Choc Chip Biscuits 4.6 Shelf Stable Cakes - No Cream 3.9 Pizza 3.8 Edible Oil Spreads* 3.4 Crumbed/Battered Fish Fillets 3.3 Dips 2.7
Through these surveys, it was possible to calculate a rough mean estimate of TFAs intake in the Australian and New Zealand population. It was concluded that around 90% of Australians have a TFA intake below 1% of dietary energy.
What about those whose diet fall outside of the mean? What about the 10% of the population that apparently are consuming more than the recommended safe limit and don’t even know about it? This could be at least 2.4 million Australians! This system doesn’t seem to protect them at all.
While people generally may not be exceeding 0.6% of TFAs daily, there is no guarantee that you are not consuming excessive amounts every day. It all depends on your diet.
It might be disputed that those TFAs include the industrially produced and the ones from ruminants, so the percentage of the actually harmful trans fats is smaller. Well, the problem here is that we don’t know. Those estimates might be under-valued and still some people might be having more than they should.
There are also no restrictions for imported goods. If you own a fish and chips restaurant, or a pastry bakery, nothing stops you from importing a large amount of cheap partially hydrogenated oil and using it exclusively in the production of your food.
Point 2. Mandatory labelling
A point was made that mandatory labelling may have undesirable consequences, because it may not always assist consumers in making healthier food choices, particularly when nutritional knowledge is limited. Interpreting the label information may not be as straight forward to the general public, as it is to health professionals.
The round table of decision makers on the FSANZ presented this argument, giving as an example a study where consumers in the U.S. when asked to select a healthier product were choosing the one that had no TFAs over the one with high levels of saturated fatty acids. (8)
The first part of this argument sounds like it is better not to inform consumers about the contents of the harmful trans fats, because some people who have little knowledge of nutrition and if they carefully analyse the nutrition labels can make the wrong decision.
Ironically, the example given in support of this argument asks consumers to choose between products with no TFAs (which are proven to be harmful) over products with saturated fatty acids (which have never been proven to be harmful). I don’t see anything wrong with that!
The response to this is simple.
We are entitled to know what is in our foods.
The FSANZ’s decision not to enforce mandatory labelling for known harmful substances, such as trans fats, with the justification that it is safer for consumers to be ignorant than to know what is in the food, is both ridiculous and negligent.
The label information, is designed to allow the consumers make informed decisions.
If it is the opinion of the FSANZ that the labels designed for consumers are not straight forward, why not focus on changing the regulation to make them clearer? Why not educate and inform people on labelling and let them decide what they want? After all, it is the consumers who use them.