Trans Fatty Acids

Policy Position

Through voluntary action, the majority of FDF members have now eliminated artificial trans fatty acids (also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) from their products, and as a result, TFAs are only found at low levels in UK diet. The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2011) indicates that average trans fats intakes (natural and artificial) were less than 2g per day for all age groups, representing 0.6% – 0.7% of food energy. This falls below the maximum UK and WHO recommendations.

‘Milk and milk products’, ‘meat and meat products’ and ‘cereals and cereal products’ were the main contributors to intake, partly from naturally occurring trans fats in dairy products and the meat of ruminant animals.

Some countries have set legislative limits on levels of artificial trans fats in products. FDF members do not oppose the introduction of legislative limits across Europe, but would not support a requirement to label TFA content, as labelling would be an unnecessary burden and would be confusing to the consumer.

Background

TFAs raise LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in the blood and lower HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), thereby increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

TFAs are found naturally at very low levels in foods such as butter, cheese, milk, beef and lamb. TFAs are also produced as a by-product of a manufacturing process known as partial hydrogenation. Partial hydrogenation serves to ‘harden’ the oil, by increasing its melting point, and thereby improving the stability of the final food product and increasing the shelf life and flavour stability of food containing these fats.

Activity in UK

In 2011, the UK Government introduced a voluntary ‘Responsibility Deal’ pledge on industrially produced trans fats which many companies signed up to. The pledge had two parts which reflected the fact that some organisations took the decision not to use artificial trans fats, and a small number of others were working to remove them:

  1. We do not use ingredients that contain artificial trans fats.
  2. We are working to remove artificial trans fats from our products within the next 12 months.

Activity in Europe

European Commission

As part of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (Regulation 1169/2001) the European Commission was required to develop a report on TFAs to advise on whether legislative measures on TFA use and labelling are necessary. On 3 December 2015, the Commission published its report, which suggests that setting a legal limit for industrial TFAs would be the most effective measure in terms of public health, consumer protection and compatibility with the single market.

The Commission’s report notes that:

  • Although the majority of EU food products analysed contain less than 2 grams of trans fats per 100 grams of fat, some products, such as biscuits and popcorn, have TFA values of up to 40-50 grams per 100 grams of fats. In some eastern and south-eastern European countries, TFA levels in pre-packed bakery products have hardly fallen at all over the past ten years, suggesting that certain parts of the EU have seen little progress.
  • The average TFA intake has been decreasing in many European countries to below the recommended level of 1% of daily energy intake. However, some parts of the population, such as low-income citizens and those within the 18-30 age range, are at risk of excessive consumption.
  • Limited information on consumer understanding of TFAs suggests that the majority of Europeans do not know about TFAs and the risks they pose to health. Therefore, mandatory labelling would make little sense without appropriate consumer education programmes. Labelling would also only target pre- packed foods, not food sold loose or food consumed in restaurants.
  • The Commission considers that efforts to reduce TFA levels should be targeted at industrial TFAs, because the proportion of trans fatty acids in those can be modified, whereas their proportion in ruminant fats is relatively stable. The report concludes that setting a legal limit for industrial TFA content would be the most effective measure in terms of public health, consumer protection and compatibility with the single market.

    Earlier in 2017, the Commission appointed a contractor to gather data on the practicality, cost and health implication of a variety of policy options.

    Activity in US

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. This means they are classed as food additives and and cannot be used without prior approval. Foods containing unapproved food additives are considered adulterated under US law, meaning they cannot legally be sold.

    The decision was taken because FDA claims that many foods in the US still contain artificial trans fats, which are linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

    The FDA has set a compliance period of three years, (deadline 18 June, 2018). This will allow food manufacturers to either reformulate products without PHOs and/or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of PHOs.

    Further information can be found here.


    Last reviewed: 04 Jul 2017