Eating trans-fatty acids increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Denmark is restricting their use in food, while the US is bringing in a mandatory labelling regime. Britain, and the rest of Europe, appear relaxed. Chris Lyddon reports.

"A high intake of trans fatty (and saturated fatty) acids has been associated with raised blood cholesterol level, one of the risk factors for coronary heart disease," Brigid McKevith, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, told just-food.com. "Studies showing a negative effect on health with trans fats have been with much higher intakes than those in the UK," she said. "The average intake of trans fatty acids among adults in the UK is now 1.2% of food energy, below the recommendation of 2%, although there are groups of people who still need to reduce their intake."

Denmark triggers attitude shift

Denmark's legislation has caused a big shift in attitudes across the European food industry, Tim Hancock of Dow Agro Sciences Europe told just-food.com. "The industry has taken it as a signal to get out of trans fat," he said.

Denmark put a 2% limit on trans fat content with effect from 1 January 2004 "After considering the harmful effects of trans fatty acids, I have found it important to take urgent steps to introduce these strict limit values," said Danish food minister Mariann Fischer Boel. "I hope we will also soon see EU regulations in this field."

Denmark has been trying to get the EU to do something about trans fats for a long time. A 1994 report by the Danish Nutrition Council concluded that trans fatty acids were at least as bad in terms of coronary heart disease as saturated fats and probably worse.

"Denmark started it all with trans fats," said Tim Hancock. "They tried in the mid-90s to get Brussels to legislate." That having failed, Denmark had acted unilaterally.

Traditionally fryers had been big users of hydrogenated oil, aiming for a longer shelf life, he said. But frying was not a big problem. "With frying it's fairly easy to reformulate," he said. "The hard things are, for example, pizza bases or shortbread, where you need a hardstock."

The solution usually chosen was to go for palm oil, but it contained 45% saturates. Tim Hancock's interest in the subject comes from promoting Dow AgroScience's Nexera Oilseed rape, which produces a 7% saturated and zero trans fat oil, marketed as Natreon.

Dow is talking directly to the food industry. "We started out by going round to the oil companies. It proved a waste of time" he said. "You had to go to the food companies direct and then take their demand back to the oil companies." The company has also been talking to nutritionists and holding consumer focus groups to get a picture of demand.

"In the UK there's something in the order of 25,000 tonnes of trans fat consumed in a year," he said. Even without using the oil Natreon, "you could replace all that tomorrow."

UK Food Standards Agency unconcerned

Britain does not really need to worry about trans fats, according to the Food Standards Agency. "The national diet and nutrition survey showed that the amount of trans fats eaten by the UK population is actually well below the recommended average," spokeswoman Rosamund Snow told just-food.com. "It's 1.2% of total fat as against a recommended average of 2%."

She did acknowledge there was a health problem. "In general it's best to reduce the amount of saturated fat and trans fat." The lack of labelling for trans fats shouldn't be too much of a problem. "At the moment they don't have to be on the ingredient list on the label, but they are formed during the hydrogenation process, so if it says hydrogenated vegetable oil you know they're there," she said. "It is being reviewed at EU level so we'll see what comes out of that."

Sue Davis, principal policy advisor for the Consumers' Association, challenged the Food Standards Agency's approach. "We find it bizarre that they have taken this line," she told just-food.com. "The argument for not doing anything seems to be based on population level consumption, which is why we tried testing foods."

"The point we were trying to establish was that some people could be eating high levels of trans fats," she said. "If we're looking at reducing saturated fats and reducing overall fat levels it makes sense to reduce trans fats at the same time. In the case of trans fats we know they are harmful."

"The European Food Safety Authority's report makes it very clear that there is strong evidence of the harmful effects of trans fats," she said. "It's clear they don't offer any nutritional benefits. It's clear that there are alternatives."

Although parts of the food industry were already reformulating to avoid trans fats, the Consumers' Association wanted to see the Food Standards Agency driving forward on reducing trans fatty acid.

And it wanted labelling. "As consumers you can't tell if a product contains trans fat, or only by looking for hydrogenated oil," she said. "We think it should be labelled It may make more sense for example to lump trans fats with unsaturated fat. At the moment it's not included at all and that needs to be addressed." She stressed that the aim had to be the removal of artificial trans fats. "It's not enough just to label. They should be taken out," she said.

The Consumers' Association was hoping the European Commission would address trans fats as it looks at labelling by the end of the year.

Although the European Food Safety Authority has carried out an assessment and concluded that the ill effects of trans fats on the heart may be greater than those of saturated fats, EFSA does not have the final say, spokeswoman Carola Sonderman, told just-food.com. "That is an opinion done by scientists," she said. "It's up to the Commission to decide." Commission spokeswoman Catherine Bunyan said EFSA's report, which came out in September, was "under consideration."

US labelling plan

The United States has already introduced a requirement that trans fats be labelled, with effect from 1 January 2006. One response from the food industry has been Monsanto's "VISTIVE" soybeans, which have been bred to produce an oil with less need for partial hydrogenation, so giving less trans fatty acid. But the new soya variety is genetically modified. Dow's Tim Hancock does not see it having much impact on this side of the Atlantic. "The soybean will be a RoundUp Ready variety, so it will be GM," he said.

Organised lobby

There is one man who has set up a UK campaign against trans fats. "I started it up because I was extremely cross at being fed poison by the food industry," Oliver Tickell, who started tfX (tfx.org.uk). "There is no way of knowing what trans fats you are getting in a product," he said. "The labels are just grossly misleading."