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Face the fats

Published in the Daily Express (Health Section), 27 July 2004. By Oliver Tickell.

Trans fat facts

The food industry 'hydrogenates' liquid vegetable oils to make them harder and improve their keeping qualities - in turn extending the shelf life of products containing them.

Hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) is especially common in factory-made cakes, biscuits, pastries, confectionery bars, margarines, dry mixes for cake and puddings, and cooking fat used in fast food outlets.

But it can turn up in lots of other places too - cheap ice creams, cereal bars, toffee, stuffing mixes, ready-made meals, vegetarian sausages and burgers (especially Linda McCartney's), and even childrens' cereals such as Nestlé Cheerios.

Hydrogenation is an industrial process in which the 'unsaturated' liquid oil is heated to around 260ºC in the presence of a metal catalyst, and hydrogen is bubbled in. The hydrogen is chemically absorbed into the oil, making it more 'saturated'.

Some of the unsaturated oil molecules also change shape in the heat, flipping from the normal 'cis' position to the 'trans' position - making trans fats.

These trans fats are not found in nature. Although they are unsaturated, they look, feel and behave more like saturated fats. This makes them confusing to our bodies, which absorb them into cells, blood and tissues, where they can disrupt normal function.

Do you eat a healthy diet? You may think you are eating well - avoiding foods rich in saturated fats, cutting back on salt and sugar, and eating your daily quota of fresh fruit and veg. But without knowing it you could be consuming dangerous amounts of the worst fats of all - the 'trans fats' found in hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO).

Look at the ingredients lists on food labels, and you will find that HVO finds its way into thousands of everyday foods - including many with a 'healthy' image, such as cereal bars, low-fat biscuits and vegetarian burgers.

Medical research indicates that these 'trans fats' are far worse for health than the saturated fats that doctors tell us to avoid: they raise LDL or 'bad cholesterol', while lowering HDL or 'good cholesterol'. They help gum up our arteries with fatty deposits. They have been identified as a significant cause of cardiovascular disease.

The Harvard School of Public Health has estimated that at least 30,000 people, and more probably 100,000 people die every year in the US from cardiovascular disease caused by eating HVO, as opposed to natural vegetable oil. In the UK - bearing in mind our smaller population and the fact that we eat less HVO than Americans - trans fats probably cause between 3,000 and 10,000 cardiovascular deaths a year.

And that's not all. According to US nutritionist Mary Enig, trans fats also "disrupt cellular function" by replacing the fats that usually make up our cell membranes. Once in cell membranes, she says, trans fats cause them to behave differently - for example, weakening cells' response to hormones such as insulin, making them less efficient at expelling wastes and toxins, and reducing immune response.

Research taking place over more than a decade at the US Universities, says Dr Enig, shows that trans fats have "many adverse effects in health areas such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immunity, reproduction and lactation, and obesity."

The US Government has responded to growing public anxiety over trans fats. From January 2006, food manufacturers will have to state the amount of trans fat in their products on the nutrition label, along with saturated and unsaturated fat. Canada is now expected to follow suit.

Many US food companies are reacting by removing HVO / trans fat from their products. For example Kraft recently launched its 'Back to Nature' line of foods made with no HVO. And it has just removed HVO from its top-selling Oreo cookies.

In Denmark even tougher laws have been passed than in the US. From January it has been illegal to sell food in Denmark containing more than 2 percent trans fat. It is even illegal to include oils or fats with more than 2 percent trans fat as an ingredient. Yet the food industry has been able to comply with the requirements. Irene Brustad, quality manager at Nestlé Nordic, says: "It has been a challenge for us, but I am not aware of any product we have had to withdraw because of the trans-fatty acid law".

Edna Hammond is retired school cook and print finisher with three children and five grandchildren. She and her husband Bill, a retired librarian, live together in Romford, Essex. She sees herself as "a normal housewife who tries to feed the family with healthy food".

"I used to think I was eating a healthy diet. But one day I was talking with a friend of a friend who was working as a laboratory technician, and the conversation got on to hydrogenated oil. 'If I was you I would watch out for this stuff', he said. So Bill, my husband, went on the net to find out more. Next thing we had all this information about what hydrogenated oil does to you - it causes high cholesterol, blood pressure... it clogs up the arteries.

It is a kind of fat that the body cannot deal with easily and can end up causing heart failure. So I started reading the ingredients on everything I buy and if its got hydrogenated oil, I just don't buy it. Its a no-no. It makes it very hard shopping sometimes because so many things have got it - cakes, biscuits, bread, sweets, margarine...

"I used to go to Holland and Barrett for herbal supplements, but one day I looked at the ingredients and I saw the capsules contained hydrogenated oil. I asked at the counter and the girl said the manufacturers put it in because it's cheaper.

Then I started finding it in all this Weight Watchers stuff I'd been buying, and in the Go-Ahead biscuits my doctor had recommended. When I asked him about it, he didn't even know it was there. I thought I was on a good diet, eating low fat this and that, but really it wasn't healthy at all."

"I think the public should be aware of what is happening, because not many people know anything about it. Some brands are starting to take it out and put 'No hydrogenated oils' on the label, so the industry knows what's going on. But most aren't bothering. So I think the Government has to stop this stuff from going into our food.

They should tell the companies, 'don't put this stuff in, it's dangerous'. Its only there because it's cheap and has a long shelf life, and the manufacturers don't care what happens to you. What is it doing to our childrens bodies?"

In the UK, no such laws are in place. The Government's Food Standards Agency, which is in charge of food labelling and safety, warns of the dangers of trans fats. Its website (www.food.gov.uk) says: "The trans fats found in food containing hydrogenated vegetable oil are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits". And it advises consumers, "Cut down on food that is high in saturated fat or trans fats".

But the FSA does not make manufacturers label the trans fat content of their products. Asked about how consumers are meant to follow their advice to cut back on food high in trans fats, the FSA could only say that trans fats were mostly found in foods such as cakes and biscuits which people shouldn't eat too much of anyway; and that consumers are free to avoid foods containing HVO.

So why doesn't it follow Denmark's and ban foods high in trans fats? The FSA said it was waiting for the European Food Safety Authority's report on trans fats, due out this summer. However any action at an EU level is likely to be many years away.

Some UK companies are taking independent action. Masterfoods has taken HVO out of Mars and Snickers bars (though not yet out of Twix, Mars Delight and others). Weetabix has a firm no-HVO policy. Most soft margarines are now made with less HVO, and some - such as 'I can't believe its not butter' and the Co-op's own brand margarines - contain none at all.

Some other companies aim to eliminate HVO from their products - but have not done it yet. These include RHM, owner of Mr Kipling and Lyons cakes, and Burtons Foods, which makes Wagon Wheels.

But a host of other companies will do little or nothing until they are forced to by law. In my view, the Government and its FSA should follow Denmark's example without further delay - and so save thousands of British lives that will otherwise be lost.

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