The dilemma: trans-free or tastier food

"We want people in this country to have healthy food," said Steen Stender, vice-president of the Danish Nutrition Council. "Instead of putting the word trans on the label and telling people what trans fatty acids are, we simply remove the trans fats." Dr. Stender is contemptuous of the laissez-faire Canadian approach, saying: "You could put poison in your food as long as you label it correctly. In Denmark, we remove the poison."

The Globe and Mail
October 30, 2003

The dilemma: trans-free or tastier food
Ingredient is hazardous to health, but it makes edibles stay fresh longer
Andre Picard

There is no question that trans fats, the hidden fats found in significant quantities in snack foods, processed foods and fast foods, are unhealthy. They have virtually no redeeming nutritional value. They contribute to soaring rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and maybe even to Alzheimer's.

But they serve an important commercial purpose: They extend the shelf life of food, they make many of our favourite snack foods and fast foods tastier and more visually attractive, and they make foods cheaper.

So, what should be done?

Should we continue to consume large quantities of trans fats but keep them out of sight, out of mind? Should products be labelled so consumers can choose, if they wish, to buy them? Should limits be placed on how much trans can be included in any food product? Or, should they be banned outright, forcing manufacturers to find alternatives?

For David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and an internationally renowned nutrition expert, trans fats have to go, and quickly. "The recommended level in the diet is none."

He believes the means to that end is largely irrelevant.

"Whether through supply and demand, or legislation, I favour the complete removal of trans fats from the food supply," Dr. Katz said.

The author of the bestselling book The Way To Eat said that because free choice is an ingrained notion in North America, regulators have opted for labelling, but he is unsure that is sufficient.

"With all the information consumers are supposed to process, there are certainly times when it's just best to change the food supply," Dr. Katz said.

That is the approach taken by Denmark, which has adopted legislation that limits trans fats to no more than 2 per cent of total fats in processed foods. That is a negligible quantity that amounts to a de facto ban on trans fats.

"We want people in this country to have healthy food," said Steen Stender, vice-president of the Danish Nutrition Council. "Instead of putting the word trans on the label and telling people what trans fatty acids are, we simply remove the trans fats."

Dr. Stender is contemptuous of the laissez-faire Canadian approach, saying: "You could put poison in your food as long as you label it correctly. In Denmark, we remove the poison."

He said the approach is more "consumer-friendly" and will result in far more immediate and lasting health benefits than Canada's approach.

But critics say Denmark's hard-line approach is easy because the country (like most European countries) didn't cut back on tropical oils and beef tallow in processed foods, the way Canada and the United States did. The move was well intentioned, but has proven to be a mistake, at least in health terms.

Danes eat, on average, less than one gram of trans fats daily, compared to more than 10 grams daily for Canadians.

Despite the high consumption level, it is virtually impossible to tell, reading product labels, how much trans fats can be found in a given food product. Only a few companies voluntarily disclose the information. In most cases, the only way to tell if the product contains trans fats is by looking on the ingredients label for the words "partially hydrogenated oils" and doing some quick math. (On some labels now, there is information on total fats and saturated fats; the difference between those two numbers is roughly the trans fats.)

The information will be clearer when new "Nutrition Facts" labels become mandatory. The new labels will give details on trans fats, calories and 13 key nutrients.

But they will not become mandatory for big food manufacturers until January, 2006, and two years later for small manufacturers. Most meats packaged in retail stores will be exempt from the labelling laws, as will foods for children under the age of two, including baby formula and baby foods, both of which contain trans fats. And, while fast foods and restaurant foods contain some of the highest levels of trans fats, menus do not have to disclose nutritional information.

Margaret Cheney, chief of the bureau of nutritional sciences for Health Canada, defended the approach, saying that labelling will empower consumers and create an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the levels of trans fats or drop them altogether.

"This is a big step here in Canada for the industry to undertake mandatory labelling," she said.

Dr. Cheney said it is preferable for consumers to have information and make sound nutritional choices rather than adopt the "passive protection" approach of Denmark. But she did not rule out the possibility of regulating the trans fats content of food if labelling proves insufficient.

"I think we have to try other approaches first," Dr. Cheney said.

Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said he prefers to discuss existing rules rather than theoretical approaches.

"We should be pleased that Canada will be the first country in the world to have mandatory labelling for trans fats," he said. (New U.S. regulations will take effect at about the same time, early 2006.)

Mr. Jeffery said that while the new food labels will not be perfect, they will result in a quantum leap in the nutritional information available to consumers.

"Mandatory labelling of trans fats will create awareness and, hopefully, that will create an incentive for manufacturers to look for healthier alternatives," he said.

Companies have already begun to respond to growing consumer and media interest in trans fats. McDonald's has significantly cut its use of hydrogenated oils, and Frito-Lay is beginning to market its chips as "trans free." McCain's has also begun advertising its SuperFries as being low in trans fats. The braggadocio is occurring, curiously, even though these products are still high in calories and saturated fat.
Mr. Jeffery worries about this because it suggests that trans fats are being vilified to the exclusion of other unhealthy ingredients.

"Theoretically, the health claims are supposed to promote really healthy foods, but here we have French fries making a health claim. It's unusual," he said.

In fact, under the law, foods deemed "trans fat free" can contain up to 0.5 grams a serving.

"Trans fats are likely to be found in processed foods that also contain too much saturated fat, too much sugar, too much salt, too much refined starch, etc.," he said. Dr. Katz said that by eschewing trans fats consumers can set themselves on a path to healthier eating, but they have to keep vigilant.

Hidden fats
TUESDAY: The ill effects of trans fats
WEDNESDAY: The foods containing trans
Today: Last of the series

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Risks: Obesity, Trans fatty acids, Canada, 20031030 The dilemma

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