Switzerland has become only the second country in Europe to set a limit on trans fats - found in some processed foods – which have been linked to heart disease.This content was published on July 13, 2008 - 18:14
The move follows a study by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which revealed that almost a third of the 120 food items tested contained an excessive amount of the fats.
Industrial trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are formed by a process called hydrogenisation, which hardens the fats and improves their shelf life.
Found in products such as puff pastry, ice cream and deep-fried pastry, they are thought to raise cholesterol, a factor in heart problems.
"The limit fixed in our regulation is a maximum two grams of trans fatty acids (TFA) in 100g of vegetable oil or fat. We did not regulate TFAs of animal origin," Michael Beer, head of the Food Safety Division at the Federal Health Office, told swissinfo. He added that the Swiss regulation was similar to one in force in Denmark.
"The food producers will have to rework their recipes. The regulation entered into force on April 1, 2008 but producers have a period of one year to make the changes," he said in a written reply.
Beer said food low in trans fats could now be produced using new technology and that the substances were an "unnecessary risk to health".
"While many producers have adjusted recipes during the past 12 months, we wanted to make sure that everybody has the same starting position and that everybody makes the change in an acceptable period of time," added Beer.
Research published in 2007 by Federal Institute of Technology scientists was key in raising awareness of the problem among the authorities and food industry in Switzerland.
It found that some ready-made meals or bakery products, especially flaky pastry, contained large amounts of trans fats - one selection of flaky pastries studied contained an average 8.5 per cent TFAs relative to the total proportion of fats.
"I'm quite pleased so see that this maximum level of two per cent has been set up so quickly and also that the industry has reacted very quickly," Paolo Colombani, who was involved in the research, told swissinfo.
"Probably the reason is that industry was already starting to adapt the fat in food items so they just had to finish up the process," the nutrition scientist said.
The main advantages of the limit are for consumers, who no longer have to check labels for trans fats content. Industry has had to make some investment in replacing TFAs.
Small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in dairy products and meat. But industrial trans fats, which are not tolerated as well by the body, did not enter the human diet until around 80 years ago. It has been known since the 1990s that they are a health problem.
Denmark imposed its limit in 2003 and some American and Canadian local authorities have also reacted. The European Union is still discussing the issue.
The two main Swiss food retailers have already taken action: Migros says its own brand products have been subject to a two per cent TFA limit since the end of 2007. This rule should eventually apply to third party distributors as well.
Coop states that its own brand and household name products will include - where possible - no trans fats or a value of under two per cent by the end of 2008.
"We have this two per cent limit, which is a sign to the population and industry that we are watching this," Colombani told swissinfo.
"And industry has reacted in a very positive way. They have managed to ensure that all products that will be and are produced in Switzerland have only very little trans fats, so for Switzerland the situation is optimal."
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich
Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, occur naturally in small amounts in food products from ruminants such as cows. The human body can support theses TFAs in its metabolism.
Industrial TFAs are 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 not well tolerated by the body.
These artificial TFAs 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.
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