Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stop faffing about on trans fats

It's rare we post two stories on the same subject in the same week but we've done it this week with those nasty little fatty acids - trans-fats.

These fats, which are created by turning liquid vegetable fats into solids for use in spreads and other foods, are known to be harmful to the heart and new research suggests they can double your risk of non-aggressive prostate cancer. At the same time, research from the US shows that manufacturers have responded to compulsory labelling of trans fats on food by cutting them completely - many margarine, butters, cookies, cakes and snack foods are trans-fat free. There's an obvious conclusion from this.

So how do you explain the decision of the Food Standards Agency 'that mandatory restrictions are not necessary' in the UK? They say trans-fat consumption is low here. Maybe - but there's no beneficial level of trans fats so even if our levels are already low reducing them further will only help - and possibly quite a lot. The FSA say the real problem in our diet is saturated fat - animal fat. Well, that's not an open and shut case but even if saturateds are the main problem, not solving one problem because there's another one that's more serious seems daft.

Action is quite possible. Denmark has effectively banned trans fats. The EU considered challenging this on anti-competition grounds but dropped the idea. Perhaps it realised the absurdity: in upholding its free trade principles it would be undermining its own health policy. Anyway, the other Nordic countries are considering following suit. Steen Stender of the Danish Nutrition Council has collected trans-fat data from around the world and the UK levels of which the FSA are so proud are really only good by comparison to the USA. Our consumption levels are no better than most in Europe and worse than many.

Trans fat free solutions already exist. Last year the British Retail Consortium announced its intention to remove industrially added trans-fats from all new stocks of own brand products.

Currently there are EU proposals in the table which could tighten up trans fat labelling but they would still be voluntary. Is that really enough? If the USA can insist on labelling without undermining its economy or enraging its fast food fans, why can't the UK?

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