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Updated 11 March 2013

SA declares war on trans fats

South Africans' health is set to improve when new legislation kicks in on 17 August 2011 to limit artery-clogging artificial trans fats to no more than 2% in all food products.

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South Africans’ health is set to improve when new legislation kicks in on 17 August 2011 to limit artery-clogging artificial trans fats in all food products. The Department of Health has confirmed that the use of artificial trans fats, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, will be limited to  a  maximum of 2% in all foods.

Though some trans fats occur naturally in meat and dairy, the new regulations specifically refer to artificially created (man-made) trans fats and will apply to all food stuffs sold, manufactured in or imported into South Africa, as well food prepared in restaurants, fast food outlets and the catering industry.

South Africa is following in the footsteps of Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, California and a number of US cities, while the pressure is mounting on the UK and the EU to follow suit.

Chemically altered

Trans fats, more accurately described as trans fatty acids, are found in vegetable oils which have been chemically altered (or partially hydrogenated) to harden into a solid in order for it to become stable, remain solid at room temperature and give food products (such as biscuits, margarine, deep-fried fatty foods, crisps and pre-packaged meals) a longer shelf life.

Apart from heart disease, trans fats have also been linked to diabetes, certain types of cancer and obesity.

The news of the impending legislation has been received very positively by South Africa’s health community.

 "With the global increase in diseases of lifestyle (such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity), there lies a greater responsibility on consumers to make informed decisions regarding their food purchases. Policy makers and the government are making this task much easier for us with the new legislation on trans fats,” says Berna Harmse, President of the Dietetic Association of South Africa (Adsa).

"Trans fats increase the levels of LDL cholesterol (bad) and lower your HDL-cholesterol (good cholesterol), which is detrimental to our health. This is why we as dieticians are very positive about the impending change.”

Inexpensive processing method

As trans fats extend the shelf life of food and are an inexpensive processing method, they are found in most pre-packaged baked goods. They are also found in potato and corn chips, margarine, "slap" chips and most fried fast foods.

Says Health24’s DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden: “Any food that is manufactured from plant oils which have been hydrogenated, can potentially contain trans fats. However the major manufacturers have already improved their manufacturing processes to the extent that their hydrogenated products contain only traces of trans fats and therefore, no longer constitute a problem. Check food labels to monitor the trans fat content of commonly purchased food products.”

Margarines, for example, used to be infamous for their dangerously high trans fats content. Luckily, these high levels have already been removed long before the new legislation. In 2010, the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) took on the challenge to analyse the trans fat levels of 40 different margarines available in South Africa, and found that all of the margarines were below 2% trans fats (2 grams trans fats per 100 grams margarine).

Dr van Heerden also cautions consumers to avoid fast food outlets that do not adhere to good manufacturing practice which entails the use of oil with a so-called high smoke point and regular replacement of the oil supply. “Foods prepared by deep frying in oil that is repeatedly heated, may also contain trans fats.”

Improved health

Harmse believes that the new legislation will be especially beneficial to people who are currently consuming too many foods with trans fatty acids. “This type of intervention to improve overall eating plans is especially useful as it requires no action from consumers - the legislation works in the background to improve the nutrient composition of eating plans. By helping the consumer eat fewer trans fats their potential risk for cardiovascular disease is reduced." 

She warns, though, that consumers still have a responsibility for their health in other ways: “This legislation does not remove the need for eating plans that are planned according to the guidelines for healthy eating. And, consumers should still be active and not smoke.”

 'Reaction to emotion and political view'

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the new legislation.

"This legislation is, unfortunately, not based on any factual evidence that South African diets in general contain excessive amounts of trans fatty acids, and seems to be more a reaction to emotion and political view - both local and international,” says Andrew MacKenzie, an independent expert on oils and fats who has worked in the food manufacturing industry for many years.

“I honestly don’t think it’s justified or likely to be of any benefit; in fact it may well have the opposite effect. Simply taking out the trans fats is not the end of the story.”

According to MacKenzie trans fats in margarines and similar spreads (a major source of fats in the average diet) play an important role in that they contribute “body” at ambient temperature (so-called “stable on the table”), yet melt at mouth temperature (thus avoiding the “cold sausage roll”  fatty sensation from high melting components).  

Subsequently, the trans fats have to be replaced by (mainly) saturated fats which are also regarded as "bad". (Saturated fats are a well-known precursor to high cholesterol and heart disease.)

“To meet the conflicting requirements of room temperature stability and good oral melting properties necessitates the use of specialised mixtures of (mostly) ‘tropical’ fats and oils which contain shorter chain saturated fatty acids that are generally regarded as 'undesirable’,” MacKenzie explains. “Thus, in general, we'll see an increase in saturated (mainly short chain) fat content to counter the textural and organoleptic [sensory] problems caused by the removal of trans fats.”

Initial good intentions

Ironically, trans fats were initially developed with good intentions. When it was discovered in the late 1970s that saturated animal fats could lead to high cholesterol and heart disease, the food industry looked at healthier, unsaturated vegetable oils to replace butter, but found that many of them became rancid quickly due to oxidation. As a result they started using hydrogenation by which hydrogen is bubbled through vegetable oils to increase their shelf life, keep foods fresh for longer and improve their taste and texture.

It was only in the 1990s that researchers discovered how trans fats actually increased bad (LDL) cholesterol and decreased good (HDL) cholesterol, elevating the risk of coronary heart disease. The problem with the hydrogenation process is that it makes an unsaturated fat behave more like a saturated fat with all the resultant health problems.

Practicality of legislation

Concerns have been raised about the practicality of the restrictions and the country’s ability to enforce it.

“Monitoring does present challenges for various reasons,” says DietDoc. “The Department of Health will already be overextended when it comes to monitoring of the application of the new labelling regulations, so that this additional legislation may put even greater strain on their resources (such as inspectors etc). The available laboratories are also going to be hard pressed to do all the testing for the new labelling regulations, so additional testing for trans fats may take relatively long."

MacKenzie adds: "Any legislation means absolutely nothing if it's not enforced. You need a specialised lab facility (read 'costly'), to measure the low trans fat content in foods that is now specified. It is not a simple 'spot' test that can be done on site by a municipal inspector."

“On the more positive side," says DietDoc, "most of the major food manufacturers have already reduced the trans fat content of their foods. It is the smaller manufacturers who may not be able to afford testing who may struggle to meet the requirements. In addition, foods imported from countries where there is no trans fat legislation, will probably also pose a problem.”

No quantitative evidence

MacKenzie believes that the new SA legislation is uncalled-for and costly as there was no quantitative evidence brought forward by the Department of Health at the outset to justify the need for the legislation or to explain how restricting trans fats would actually improve consumers' diets, and therefore, their health.  

"Since there was no quantitative evidence at the outset of this new legislation, there is no way that the Department of Health will be able to determine at any future time whether restricting trans fats has actually improved the nation's average diet at all."

SA retailers and fast food outlets ready

South Africa’s retailers and fast food outlets have assured Health24 that they are ready for the new legislation.

Woolworths were the very first South African retailer to remove trans fats from their entire own brand product range in 2007. This includes their freshly prepared pies, pizzas, soups, sauces, ready-made meals and party snacks.

Pick n Pay reported that they are set to go. “All Pick n Pay Private Label products manufactured after the 17th of August will comply with the legislation which states that food products need to contain less than two grams non-ruminant trans fatty acids per 100 grams of fat," says acting merchandise director, Peter Arnold. "Pick n Pay has also contacted its food suppliers to ensure they are aware of the regulations in order to ensure that their food products will comply.”

Shoprite-Checkers spokesperson Sarita van Wyk has confirmed that they are also on track and that all “products which do not meet the 2% maximum for industrially produced trans fats will be removed by the deadline”.

Healthier fries

Of the popular fast food outlets KFC South Africa already eliminated all trans fatty acids from their food products in August 2009. “None of our products are prepared using trans fats,” KFC said in a statement. “KFC South Africa eliminated Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs) from the shortening in August 2009 after extensive research to ensure that our product still delivers on the great taste and flavour of Original Recipe chicken.”

Wimpy confirmed that the frying oil (sunflower seed oil) used at all their restaurants does not contain any trans fatty acids and complies with the new legislation.“At Wimpy we value our customers and Wimpy acknowledges the new legislation that will restrict the use of trans fats in foods. Wimpy will comply with the regulation which commences on 17 August 2011."

McDonald’s South Africa is also set for the changes: "We are proud to confirm that all our products are within the legislated limits of the newly proposed regulations requiring a 2% limit on trans fat acids (TFAs)," their media statement reads. "The ongoing reduction of TFAs in our products is evidence of McDonald’s South Africa’s commitment to ensuring continued compliance with regulatory requirements in the country."

Sources: http://www.doh.gov.za; http://foodstuffsa.co.za; http://www.sabinetlaw.co.za; Sapa news; Health24; DietDoc, Adsa, Cansa, SA Heart and Stroke Foundation; www.livestrong.com; http://www.nih.gov; www.cancer.org; www.eurekalert.org/bysubject/medicine.php; YouPulse magazine)

- (Article first published in August 2011)

Read more:

Health Department to ban trans fats
Confused about fats?
The big fat truth uncovered

 
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