20 October 2009

Health Department to ban trans fats

The Department of Health plans to follow in the footsteps of US, Canadian and European counterparts by introducing legislation to ban the use of unhealthy trans fatty acids.

South Africa's Department of Health plans to follow in the footsteps of US, Canadian and European counterparts by introducing legislation to ban the use of unhealthy trans fatty acids in food products.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told Parliament on Thursday that the process to ban these fats began several months ago when former Health Minister Barbara Hogan gave permission to proceed with draft regulations in this regard, reports.

All manufactured and pre-packaged foodstuffs, as well as foods prepared by restaurants and fast food outlets, currently sold in South Africa, which generally contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (IP-TFAs) as an ingredient, or where such oil is used for deep-frying purposes, will be affected by the proposed legislation.

But while these steps seem noble, local nutrition experts wonder whether the ban is realistic.

Melting point of fats considered
"In terms of health benefits, it would be wonderful if trans fats are banned from use in products, but if this is going to be practical for the manufacturers of certain products is another question," says Charlene Goosen, a registered dietician from NICUS (Nutrition Information Centre, University of Stellenbosch).

"Both trans fatty acids and saturated fats increase the risk for the development of a variety of chronic diseases, which means that they should be limited in the diet," she says. "But the structural composition of both these types of fat is beneficial in the food-production industry."

Goosen explains that these fats have a higher melting point and remain stable at higher temperatures, which makes them well suited for baking purposes. They furthermore help to extend the shelf life of a product. Unfortunately, the healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats don't have similar benefits.

"One has to be careful of an isolated focus on trans fats, since certain types of oil can provide the same melting-point benefits as a result of their saturated-fat content," Goosen says. "If a manufacturer then changes the type of oil to render the product free of trans fats, it could still contain high amounts of saturated fat. The product won't necessarily be healthier."

Goosen furthermore notes that, since mono- and polyunsaturated fats have a lower melting point, these fats generally aren't suited for use in the take-away industry.

Difficult to control trans-fat content
Health24's DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden, echoes Goosen's response in saying that the banning of trans fats may not be practical: "While it's indeed important that South Africa should join other countries in banning harmful trans-fats in foods, it's uncertain if we have the capacity to control the trans-fat content in foods sold locally."

Van Heerden notes that, on the one hand, we don't have sufficient accredited laboratories to carry out the required tests on food products to monitor if they only contain trace amounts of trans-fats or not. On the other hand, the South African market is being flooded by poorly regulated imported foods from other countries.

"Who is going to monitor these foods to ensure that they don't contain harmful trans-fats?" Van Heerden asks. "Legislation is only useful when it can be applied across the board."

Van Heerden furthermore says that there's also the problem of agricultural products that contain intrinsic trans fats. "Is the legislation going to differentiate between trans fats that are found in unprocessed foods such as meat, and those that are created by manufacturing processes such as hydrogenation?"

Van Heerden adds: "There's obviously more to promoting good health than legislation. Scientific capacity and adequate monitoring are just as important to ensure that laws are actually applied."

A step in the right direction
Owen Frisby, executive director of the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST), is more positive: "The first step in the right direction is that the Department will be meeting with experts for input on how serious the problem is in South Africa and what the effect (on health) of replacing trans fats with other fats will be.

"The effect on the industry will probably be small if the levels decided upon are reasonable, as I suspect that major producers had already taken corrective action a long time ago. The outcome of the deliberations will be very interesting," Frisby says.

(Carine Visagie & Sapa, Health24, October 2009)

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