Experts call for ban on hidden nasty
Banning a harmful but hidden ingredient from the Australian packaged and processed food supply could prevent tens of thousands of deaths from heart disease, according to new research from The George Institute for Global Health.
Trans fatty acids – made during the industrial process that converts vegetable oils into a solid form of fat – are a well-known risk factor for heart disease. But it’s been argued that eliminating them completely – as is required by law in many other countries around the world – would be too costly for both government and the food industry.
Dr Jason Wu, Program Head of Nutrition Science at The George Institute, says that while the intake of trans fatty acids in Australia is generally low, levels continue to exceed health guidelines for some people, mostly those with less education and on a lower income.
“Despite the known health risks, our previous research shows progress on reducing trans fats in Australia’s packaged food supply has slowed to a halt,” he says.
While trans fats occur naturally at low levels in meat and cow’s milk, people in most countries can also get them from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in processed foods such as pastries. But avoiding them isn’t easy because in Australia, it’s not compulsory for manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition panel on packaged foods.
Researchers set out to calculate the potential costs and health benefits of a nationwide ban on industrial trans fatty acids in Australia’s food supply. The study found that such a ban could prevent around 2000 deaths and 10,000 heart attacks over the first 10 years, and up to 42,000 deaths from heart disease over the lifetime of the adult population (the time from when the ban starts to when all individuals have died or reached 100 years of age).
The cost of implementing this legislative measure was estimated to be $22 million during the first 10 years and $56 million over the population lifetime, most of which was down to government costs for monitoring implementation of the ban.
However, the estimated heart disease-related healthcare cost savings compared to no ban reached $80 million over 10 years and $538 million over a lifetime.
Lead study author Dr Matti Marklund says the results support the call by the World Health Organisation to eliminate trans fats from the food supply around the world.
“Our modelling study suggests that even in countries like Australia where intake is low, elimination of industrial trans fatty acids can improve public health,” he says.
“We also found that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups and Australians outside major cities could potentially have the greatest health gains from such legislation.”
In the meantime, in order to minimise your intake of trans fatty acids, Dr Marklund advises checking the nutrition labels of packaged foods before buying.
“Any products that include ‘partially hydrogenated fat’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ on the ingredient list are more likely to contain trans fats,” he says.