If Caithness Courier readers are consistent with the rest of the population of the European Union, according to European Commission statistics, only one in three of you will be aware of the existence of industrial trans fats or trans fatty acids (TFAs) in the food you eat.
I, like many others, only recently became aware TFAs and of the serious health problems they can cause. Around since the 1950s, many of us, I expect, don't even know that we are eating TFAs, but scientific evidence is now stacking up at a remarkable pace: trans fats pose a serious long-term health threat. The implications of eating these fats is not just that you'll gain weight, but that you will be increasing your risk of heart disease, and now it seems of becoming infertile as well.
During the October sitting of the European Parliament, MEPs successfully voted for a resolution calling on the Commission to establish, as soon as possible, an EU wide legal limit on these TFAs that are widely used in the food industry, particularly in ready-made meals, cakes, industrial frying fat, biscuits and wafers. Yes, unfortunately, all the stuff we know and love so much!
Occurring naturally in some foods, TFAs can also result from heating and frying oil at high temperatures. Hydrogen is added to the vegetable oil to make it solid or semi-sold at room temperature and as well as improving the texture of food it also makes it more tolerant to repeated heating and increases its shelf life.
In the USA, where it is widely believed that food legislation is less stringent than here, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2015 determined that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of industrial trans fats in processed foods, were no longer “generally recognised as safe” for use in human food and that they should be prohibited by June 2018.
But the EU does not have legislation regulating the content or labelling of trans fats in food products. At the moment in the EU, unless it is listed voluntarily, a product on the shelf does not have to indicate on its label the exact amount of TFAs present in hydrogenated oils, or indeed of their presence at all.
Individually, four EU Member states have set legal limits on TFAs in their food. Denmark brought in a limit of 2% of TFAs in oils and fats in 2003 and similar national legal limits have since been introduced in Austria (2009) Hungary (2013) and Latvia (2015). Although there are voluntary measures in place in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK and Greece there has been growing pressure to establish legal limits as an EU-wide practice.
We all need to inform ourselves better about the content of the food we eat. But what is most regrettable is that foodstuffs with a high TFA content are often the cheaper products and that without proper information this will inevitably add to the widening health inequalities suffered by those on lower incomes.