You’ve probably heard of saturated fats in butter, omega 3 in fish, healthy fats in olive oil. But have you ever heard of trans fatty acids (TFAs)? Also called ‘trans fats’ , they can hide in processed foods such as biscuits, fish & chips, doughnuts or pizza.
The first thing you might wonder is ‘are they good fats or bad fats?’ Well, there is nothing yummy about TFAs: they are bad. Actually they are the worst kind of fat.
Not only do trans fats provide zero nutritional benefits but they also raise the ‘bad’ cholesterol in our blood (LDL) and slash the level of the ‘good’ one (HDL). In brief they clog up one’s arteries and increase the risk of developing heart disease, the number one killer in Europe.
For that reason, the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority have recommended that intakes should be as low as possible, which would translate as a threshold of 2g of TFA per 100g of fat.
Although TFAs are known to damage consumers’ health, they have also been a key ingredient in some processed foodstuffs, and therefore also incorporate profits. They are created when hydrogen is added to solid oil. Food makers started using trans fats a few decades ago because they are cheap and come in handy for several reasons. These include helping to make the food stay solid at room temperature, extending a product’s shelf life and softening its texture.
The good news is that TFAs can easily be replaced with other fats. While saturated fats are naturally present in some foods, trans fats are man-made. So they can easily be un-made.
Not only do trans fats provide zero nutritional benefits but they also raise the ‘bad’ cholesterol in our blood (LDL) and slash the level of the ‘good’ one (HDL).
Are there really trans fats in my food?
There might be. Although TFA levels have generally dropped, there is no guarantee that your food is trans fat-free.
Our Eastern European neighbours are more exposed because many common foods are still loaded with trans fats. For instance, in 2014, BEUC’s Czech member found trans fats in several wafers. Some neared an alarming 10g per 100g of fat.
Mind you, Westerners are not 100% shielded from harmful trans fats. All over Europe young people and low-income families are the most vulnerable as they tend to consume more of these cheap and convenient TFA-rich foods such as crisps, ready-made pizza or sweets. Yet those social groups are already the ones who suffer the most from diet-related illnesses, including heart disease.
So trans fats are restricted?
In recent years, several food companies have committed to removing trans fats from their products. But not all of them have followed suit, and as a consequence some products still contain trans fats.
Some EU countries have limited trans fat content. Denmark introduced a cap of 2g in 2004, which made TFAs practically vanish from the food supply. Just three years later, the rate of deaths due to cardiovascular diseases declined in Denmark. New York City has experienced the same success story.
Despite good will, voluntary measures have failed to protect all consumers, including the most vulnerable ones.
The EU Commission suggested to voluntarily label the presence of TFAs in our food. But labelling trans fatty acids is a no-go. It would be like labelling the presence of a hair in a sandwich. It should not be there in the first place, full stop.
All over Europe young people and low-income families are the most vulnerable as they tend to consume more of these cheap and convenient TFA-rich foods.
The only effective solution is to set a legal limit. It is time to end this two-tier Europe. Whether you live in Brussels or Bucharest, whatever food you eat, you should not be exposed to trans fats.
What are we waiting for?
Compared to the USA, the EU is moving extremely slowly. The European Commission finally published a long-awaited report assessing TFAs in December 2015. It came out after relentless demands from our side, including a joint call with four food giants.
But it was worth the wait: the report clearly echoes our calls and points to an EU-wide legal limit as the most effective measure to protect consumers’ health.
But the Commission now needs to speed things up. Its impact assessment, aimed to gauge the expected outcomes of the policy options, was supposed to be published last January. Six months later, we are still waiting for it.
So what can I do?
Laws don’t come into effect overnight. So if you want to avoid ingesting trans fats in the meantime, just avoid those products with ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ in the ingredients’ list. If you do so, your heart will be thankful for it.
 In this post, ‘trans fats’ refer to industrially produced trans-fatty acids, in opposition to the ones naturally present in tiny amounts in meat and dairy.
This post is part of our nutrition series. Find more in our online kitchen.
More about BEUC’s position on TFAs.