Food companies hate the idea of being regulated i.e. having the government tell them what to do. However, with freedom in the marketplace comes responsibility. The best way to avoid regulation is for an industry to do the right thing by its customers and health authorities when a problem with the industry’s products is identified.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration recently announced that partially hydrogenated oils (containing trans fats) were no longer ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ and gave the fats and oils industry three years to get them out of the food supply. So, begrudgingly, the US industry will be forced to adopt a position that companies in the rest of the developed world adopted 20 years ago.
A brief history of trans fats
Health reviews of trans fats conducted in the 1970s and 1980s found little to be concerned about. The food-health relationship considered important at the time was the effect on the level of total cholesterol in the blood and trans fats seemed to be okay – the effect was similar to that of olive oil.
This all changed in 1990 when researchers broadened their investigations to consider the effects of trans fats on LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol. Unlike any other class of fatty acids, trans fats raised the ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol and lowered the ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol – a double negative effect. Trans fats had a worse effect on blood lipids than any other fat or carbohydrate.
Soon afterwards researchers at Harvard found trans fats to be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease in their large population studies. In Australia, both the National Health and Medical Research Council (1992) and the Heart Foundation (1994) flagged a potential problem with trans fats.
The industry response
To their credit, major fats and oils companies in Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia didn’t wait for their governments to tell them what to do. These companies were abreast of the science, took the initiative, made the necessary investment and began to remove trans fats from their products. In Australia, the process to remove trans fats from margarines began in 1995 and by 1998 almost all of the top brands of margarine in the country were virtually free of trans fats. During the 2000s a second wave of trans fat reduction ensued as major food companies combed through their ingredients lists tracking down any sources of trans fat. As a consequence trans fats now comprise just 0.5% of the calories in the Australian diet, most of which comes from dairy fat and meat fat. This is well below the maximum intake recommended by the World Health Organisation (1.0% of calories).
In Denmark, the trans fat content of the diet has fallen about 85% since the 1970s. Sometimes this fall is wrongly attributed to a regulation imposing a limit on the content of trans fats in food ingredients, which was introduced in Denmark in 2003. By far the majority of the fall in the trans fat content of the Danish diet occurred prior to 2000 as the fats and oils companies fulfilled their social responsibility. Interestingly, the trans fat content of the Danish and Australian diets, one subject to regulation of trans fats and one unregulated, are similar. The Danish diet is actually a little higher, presumably due to the Danes’ love of dairy products.
Ignoring all this, fats and oils companies in the United States maintained their love affair with trans fats. This is hard to comprehend as much of the observational data showing that trans fats were a problem was being generated in United States by American researchers. What were these companies thinking? So, two decades on and many premature deaths from coronary heart disease later, the FDA has had to step in and force the industry’s hand.
Butter: an interesting anomaly
While the FDA will now expect manufacturers of coffee creamers, crackers, biscuits, cakes and stick margarines to virtually eliminate trans fats from their products there remains an interesting anomaly – butter. The FDA’s consumer information sheet on trans fats states in big letters ‘Selecting foods with even small amounts of trans fat can add up to a significant intake’. Butter has about 3-5% of its fatty acids and therefore 3-5% of its calories as trans fats. Once partially hydrogenated oils are removed from the food supply butter becomes one of the richest sources of trans fats.
The dairy industry likes to tell us that these trans fats are ‘natural’ and therefore not a problem. But the facts of the matter are that at least 10 of the trans fats in butter are the same as those found in partially hydrogenated oils. Not surprisingly, dairy trans fats have similar adverse effects on blood lipids to those in partially hydrogenated oils. Butter is actually made of partially hydrogenated oils – cows eat lots of unsaturated fats from grass and seeds; these fats are then partially hydrogenated in the rumen of the cow to yield lots of saturated fat plus some trans fats, which end up in the meat and milk of the cow. Although this bio-hydrogenation may be considered ‘natural’ its consequences are not good and no amount of public relations spin can make it so.
So will butter’s ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ status be withdrawn by the FDA in the near future? Not likely. The dairy lobby is the best in the business. But what will the regulators do when biscuit manufacturers replace their current baking fats (with trans fats) with butter (with trans fats)?
The good news for the Australian public is that current advice to replace saturated fats like dairy and meat fat with unsaturated fats is also the best advice for further lowering trans fat intake.