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 (2018) indicates that average trans fats intakes (natural and artificial) were less than 2g per day for all age groups, representing 0.5% – 0.7% of food energy. This falls below the maximum UK and WHO recommendations.

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

On 24 April 2019, the Commission adopted a Commission Regulation setting a legal limit on the levels of industrially produced foods allowed to be sold in the EC.

The main elements of the Regulation include:

  • A maximum limit of industrially produced trans fat of 2g per 100g of fat in the final product.
  • Definitions of ‘fat’ and of 'trans fat’
  • An obligation for business to business transmission of information on the amount of trans fat in foods when it exceeds the limit of 2% of fat
  • Food which does not comply may continue to be placed on the market until 1 April 2021

Justification for this legislation is based on a Commission report published in December 2015, which notes that:

  • Although the majority of EU food products analysed contain less than 2g of trans fats per 100g of fat, some products, such as biscuits and popcorn, have TFA values of up to 40-50g 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.
  • 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.

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 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 the 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 now extended the transition period from June 2018 to 1st January 2020 to allow food manufacturers to reformulate products.

For more Information see FDA website.

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Last reviewed: 13 Aug 2019