Beware The Trans Fatty Acids

[To listen to the audio podcast with Dr Anoop Misra, click here]
The National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation (N-DOC) under the leadership of Dr Anoop Misra, with support from the Department of Science & Technology(DST), Ministry of Science & Technology, organized a symposium on “Trans Fats: Global and Indian Perspectives,” with a view to promote healthy living. Doctors, scientists, nutritionists, dietitians, and researchers, as well as representatives from food industry, gathered on one platform to discuss the adverse effects of Trans fats in the Indian scenario, with focus on the current status and future implications of reducing the intake of Trans fatty acids. Read more

Dr Vinita Sharma, Advisor, DST, initiated the deliberations by making a fervent appeal to eliminate TFAs from our diet, not just by creating consumer consciousness, but also by interventions at the government, industry and scientists’ levels.

Mrs Rekha Sharma, Chief Dietician at Medanta, rued the fact that economic prosperity has resulted in our consuming more fats than carbohydrates, and even the latter are more of the refined type. The burgeoning middle class now has greater access to commercially available foods, which includes fried and baked food items. Most of these contain high amounts of Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs), as they are cooked in widely available partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PVHO).

Eating out has become a status symbol and sedentary life styles a helpless outcome of today’s fast pace. Thus obesity is on the rise and is proving to be the mother of all diseases. Even rural folk are moving away from nutritious traditional cuisines.

TFAs are the most important type of ‘bad fats’ in our diet and their negative effect on our body is much more than any other dietary constituent (just like cigarette smoking). Major source of artificial TFA in our diet are the PVHO, the most common example in India being Vanaspati, and margarine and shortening in the West. Small amounts of TFAs are naturally present in diary foods and animal products, but these are not harmful.

TFAs pose a higher risk of heart disease than saturated fats as they not only raise total cholesterol levels, but also reduce the good cholesterol (HDL). A 2% increase in daily energy intake of TFAs (which could be a small helping of French fries/two and a half samosas/one plate bhatura) is associated with a 23% increase in cardiovascular risk. Other health hazards associated with them are diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, infertility and certain type of cancers.

Dr Ahmed Ibrahim, scientist at National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, informed that in 2006 WHO recommended the global phasing out of Trans fats. Several countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and USA have introduced regulatory norms to restrict the intake of TFAs. In fact Canada was the first country to introduce TFA content labelling on packaged food, followed by USA. Denmark has gone ahead even further by banning all oils/fats having TFA content>2%. New York city has banned it completely in schools.

India awakened somewhat to the menace of TFAs only around 2006, due to some awareness generated by the media and some health conscious Samaritans. Still, several commercial food items with high content of TFAs are commonly sold in hotels, restaurants and by street vendors. In the absence of any government regulations and absence of social accountability, from high profile hotels/ Multinational food chains to roadside eateries – almost all are using oils full of TFAs with scant regard for human health.

Food manufacturers in India prefer to use TFA containing cooking oils as these have a longer shelf life, lower cost, preserve the taste, and give good texture and flakiness to bakery items. Vanaspati is the main source of TFAs in India .it accounts for 10% of total production of edible oils, with a maximum consumption of 20g per person per day in north India.

There needs to be a three pronged attack to protect the health of our population from the hazards of TFAs, at the government, industrial and consumer level. The symposium recommended that at the
Government level- (i) Regulatory measures, by legislative action, be adopted to put a threshold limit of TFAs levels<10% of the total fat content in Vanaspati and <5% in margarines (bakery fats), for the time being, and eliminate them totally from the diet within a period of two years. (ii) Process to produce ‘zero trans’ fats be allowed and encouraged. (iii) Food labelling in all packed food items and edible oils giving TFA, as well as saturated/unsaturated fatty acid, content per serving/per packet be made mandatory. (iv) Mandatory disclosure of the types of dietary fats and oils used for food preparation in packaged items and foods served in restaurants. (v) Prohibit the usage of Trans fat free, heart healthy or cholesterol free logo if the food product contains even 0.1g of TFA per serving and is high in total fat.

Industry level –
(i) TFAs in the industrial food supply should be eliminated (as was claimed by two industry representatives present at the symposium, for their bakery products). TFAs in popularly consumed snacks like chips, French fries etc should be decreased by using healthy oils or healthy cooking methods like barbequed chips, baked potato wedges etc.

(ii) All packaged food items/ edible oils should clearly mention all the ingredients, along with the type of fats used in preparation of the product.

Consumer level – (i) Avoid use of Vanaspati and margarine in food preparation at home, and substitute it with liquid oils like mustard oil. (ii) Avoid high heating and reuse any oil which has been heated for more than 6 hours. Remember that shallow frying on low heat is worse than deep frying. Broiled ,steamed, and grilled food is anytime better than fried food. (iii) Avoid /limit the consumption of ready to eat foods, fast foods and bakery products. Avoid samosas, fried chaat, kachori, fried namkin, etc from road side vendors/restaurants, as most of them are cooked in TFA rich medium. (iv) Check the ‘nutrition facts’ label on packaged food items for TFA content, and if present do not use it. (v) Spread awareness in your peer group about the ill effects of TFA containing products.

In this context, the message of consumer activist, Mr Bijon Misra, is simply to ‘Go Back To Your Basics’; to harmonize with global standards without leaving our traditional cuisine and cultural habits; and to shun the TFA laced food products.

In the words of Dr Anoop Misra, "after the ban on cigarette smoking, restriction on TFA content of foods would be the most important public health initiative, benefitting millions of Indians, and would help curb the epidemics of the metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease. If TFA content is restricted to less than 10% in PVHOs (at present it is 40%), it is estimated that that the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes would reduce by 20%".

Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service(CNS), Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative, has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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