Call to cut unhealthy hidden fats in food
A team of Swiss scientists has sounded the alarm about the dangers of consuming too many trans fats, the solid fats found in some processed foods.
Researchers from Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology met representatives of the Swiss food industry and health authorities on Tuesday to demand that something be done to reduce the levels of these harmful "hidden" fats.
Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, occur naturally in small amounts in dairy products and meat, but are also formed by a process known as hydrogenation, which is used by food manufacturers to extend the shelf life of their products. Hydrogenation turns the fat solid.
The fats are thought to increase the risk of heart disease by raising levels of artery-clogging "bad" cholesterol.
Since February 2006, Paolo Colombani and Martin Scheeder, supported by the Federal Health Office, have been carrying out research into trans fats, analysing 120 different foodstuffs.
They found that certain products contain very high concentrations of trans fats and have called on the food industry to make much greater efforts to reduce their use.
The Zurich researchers found that some croissants and puff-pastry sweets contain an average trans fats-to-fat ratio of 8.5 per cent. During the study, results varied between 0.6 per cent and 19 per cent. For ice cream and biscuits the averages ratios were 5.8 per cent and 5.6 per cent, respectively.
In Denmark, which became the first country to introduce laws to control the sale of foods containing trans fats, a maximum trans fats-to-fat ratio of two per cent is allowed in food.
With the exception of margarine, breakfast foodstuffs and vegetable oil produced from a single oil-producing plant, trans fat levels in the study varied from very low to very high.
The researchers therefore concluded that it was not possible to generalise and say that one particular group of products contained more of these fatty acids than another. But according to the team, even a small quantity can be harmful if consumed regularly.
The Federal Health Office in Bern has said that it plans to fix trans fats limits if the food industry doesn't organise itself on the issue.
On Tuesday representatives of the food and restaurant industry agreed to keep the health office informed of the measures it plans to implement, said Micheal Beer from the health office.
Although there has been increasing acceptance by governments that the risks to consumers of eating trans fats in quantity cannot be ignored, there is no legislation about safe levels or obligations either in Switzerland or the European Union, with the exception of Denmark.
But Beer agrees that the two-per cent ratio can be achieved by 2008: "The Danish example shows that it's possible".
Swiss supermarket chains Migros and Coop have already decided to apply the two per cent trans fat limit.
swissinfo with agencies
Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, occur naturally in small amounts in dairy products and meat, but are also formed by a process called partial hydrogenation, which is used to extend the shelf life of processed food. Trans fats can be found in certain margarines, biscuits, cakes, frozen chips and fast foods.
These are thought to be even unhealthier than saturated fats and have been found to boost "bad" cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease. Many manufacturers are now stopping using trans fats in their products.
In 2003 Denmark became the first country to introduce laws to control the sale of foods containing trans fats. In the same year Canada required that the presence of trans fats be shown on food labels, and in the following year the Canadian government essentially banned the use of trans fats in food altogether.
In January 2006 it became law in the US that the content of trans fats has to be specifically listed on food labels.
In December 2006 New York City's Board of Health voted to ban trans fats from the city's restaurants. A similar ban is being proposed in Chicago and in the state of Illinois.
The TransSwissPilot project, supported by the Federal Health Office, was carried out from February to August 2006 and in January 2007. Products were bought in supermarkets and bakers and then analysed.
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