Trans-fats, your health and politics

Do you eat cakes, chocolate bars, ready meals or chips from a take-away? Who doesn’t eat some occasionally? All those foods I mentioned and many others may contain high levels of compounds called trans-fats or trans-fatty acids.

The reason that trans-fats are important is because they cause much higher levels of heart disease – and yet we rarely hear about them. Trans-fats are an unnatural product of food processing. Vegetable oils are sometimes chemically treated by “hydrogenation” to give them a thicker consistency or they are purified at a high temperature. Food manufacturers do this to increase storage life of their products or to help the flavour last longer. Both these processes put a kink in the backbone of the molecules and change their shape.

You may not be able to see these fats in your food or tell the difference yourself but your body certainly can. What happens is that these strange-shaped molecules increase the deposits in your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease. It is thought that about 7,000 deaths a year in the UK are linked to trans-fats. To put that in perspective, about 3,000 people are killed every year on the roads and the government spends millions on road safety campaigns.

Currently there is no requirement to label trans-fat content on the package or bottle in the UK, so you just can’t tell how much is there. By contrast the FDA in America introduced labelling in 2006.

So what can Liberal Democrats do about trans-fats? I think we can do quite a lot. Other countries like Denmark have banned trans-fats or are proposing to do so, as have New York and now California. Yet a few weeks ago our own government refused. The argument here is that the average amount of trans-fats people eat is less the recommended level of 2% of energy intake. But many people over-indulge in things that aren’t good for them. People often eat high levels of foods containing trans-fats, well above recommended intakes.

I’m asking our Liberal Democrat ministers in DEFRA and the Department of Health to look at this and press for a ban.

Even more than that, our own government and MEPs should be pressing for an EU-wide ban. We import large amounts of food across national borders and this issue affects many countries. The EU itself is sitting on the fence (much as the UK government is doing), not wanting to upset any apple carts with an outright ban.

I think we Lib Dems can make a difference. If you support this campaign, please email me at kaybarnard[at]gmail[dot]com. You can read about my background here.

Thank you.

* Kay Barnard is a Liberal Democrat member in Somerset and worked for many years as a research biochemist at the University of Bristol.

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21 Comments

  • Don’t you think that we have the right to eat what we want, and that it’s extremely illiberal to remove this choice from us?

  • Aren’t these being phased out anyway?

  • Z. I’m not asking for a ban on chocolate or chips, far from it. Some manufacturers have already removed trans-fats from their products. Sometimes however, there is a need for regulation, particularly for something it is not possible to detect yourself and choose to avoid. In addition, labelling will only work for packaged goods, not take-aways.
    I don’t think Denmark’s ban has stopped people choosing food they like, just made the choice a bit healthier.
    As a society we make decisions on peoples’ health all the time – for example, crash helmets for motorbike riders.

    Tommy5d The recommended level of intake is a recommended maximum level. I should have made that clearer.

  • Richard Dean 26th Oct '12 - 10:54am

    Is the 2% a recommneded daily intake of a useful substance, or a maximum tolerable amount of a poison? And does labelling actually work?

    It’s said that a government’s first duty is to defend the population. We routinely defend our population against poisons and other nasties by controlling them – we don’t allow easy access to cyanide, smallpox, or gunpowder – so if trans-fats are poisons we should surely do something.

  • Richard Dean 26th Oct '12 - 11:07am

    Good Lord Daniel, have you not lived? We are lectured by the RDAs on the back of every tin and packet. We are lectured by the Best Before date. Farmers are lectured about what they can and cannot use as fertilizer or animal feed. Abbatoirs are lectured about how and how not to do it. Food manufacturers are lectured about hygiene and E-numbers and makin sure cans don’t rust. Very few people have drunk milk straight from the cow.

  • Z – I can’t see how eating trans-fats, which can easily be substituted by healthier oils and fats, can be seen as any sort of freedom which needs to be defended . It may be a restriction of the freedom of food companies, but that is likely to be good for our health!

  • Richard Dean 26th Oct '12 - 12:17pm

    Food regulations most certainly do defend the population against threats – threats from food. It is illegal to sell motor oil as cooking oil, and to put hallucinogenic drugs in fizzy drinks. If we had not lifted ourselves out of the definitions of the eighteen century, we would never have seen cyber-warfare coming, let alone food labels.

  • Geoffrey Payne 26th Oct '12 - 12:56pm

    I think it is ridiculous that some people here mention choice. The fact of the matter is that as the author says, most people do not know about trans fats or which foods contain them. How can being ignorant be a choice? This is one of the flaws in free markets; if a company makes a profit selling a product that causes you harm without you knowing about it, then they will do nothing to inform you about it unless pressurised into doing so.
    I think it is absolutely scandalous how the food industry relies on ignorance to make their profits.
    Free markets only work well if consumers have perfect information, which is almost never!
    Also as the author mentions, people living in Denmark are not suffering a lack of choice of food, even unhealthy food. But what it does mean is that the taxpayer now spends less on the costs of the health problems caused by this fat. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is actually a popular policy over there, and I am sure it would be in the UK if the government had the courage to stand up to the giant food corporations.

  • “You are bizarrely confusing national defence with food safety”

    *giggles*

  • First off, I totally agree there is a problem with trans-fats. Personally I’ve heard of them before and I check the ingredients on the usual suspect foods like chocolate before buying, but I’m well aware that many people are unaware of the dangers.

    A ban is the most extreme thing a government can do to tackle a problem. That doesn’t mean it should never be considered, but it ought to be a last resort.

    You state in your article that there is an amount that can be safely consumed and that most people aren’t exceeding this. Isn’t there a more liberal approach that could be tried before resorting to a ban?

    Lib Dem policy established at conference is to push for front-of-label packaging information to inform people about the healthiness of the food they are buying. The government this week announced progress on this. Couldn’t a trans-fat warning easily be incorporated into this system? That way, consumers are empowered to make informed choices that ultimately affect their own health, and food companies have an incentive to end their use of trans-fats to avoid having the front-of-label health warning.

  • Why do companies use trans-fats if they’re so unhealthy? I can think of 3 possible answers:

    1) They are part of a eugenicist conspiracy to slowly kill off the proles via their diet.
    2) Trans-fats have specific properties that result in a better end product compared to healthier fats.
    3) It’s cheaper to use trans-fats compared to using healthier fats.

    Tin foil hats have never been my thing, so I’ll rule out 1).

    If the answer is 2), then banning trans-fats will clearly deny people choice. People will be forced to eat food of a worse quality than would otherwise be achieved.

    I strongly suspect the answer is 3), as from experience, trans-fats seem to be used in food at the cheaper end of the market. A ban will therefore make it more expensive to produce food that previously relied on trans-fats. For people on low disposable incomes, a trans-fat ban would reduce food choices by making some foods more expensive.

    I can’t see how a ban can do anything but reduce choice of food, at least for those with the lowest means.

  • I do not see the problem with food regulation. In the victorian era, they use to put seriously dangerous stuff in food to make it look fresher or thin the ingredients out. Lead, plaster, arsenic all manner of stuff. It isn’t a blow against personal choice to suggest that food manufacturers stop adulterating their products, It’s merel a form of consumer protection. How about if say companies were asked to put warnings of their products, stating something like “Trans-fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease”, thus increasing consumer choice by making it simple to find out and clearly visible?I don’t see that informing people of the risks in some foods is any more a symptom of the “nanny state” than printing a list of dodgy builders. After all you could argue that if you hire someone and their work is shoddy or dangerous that it is the result of freedom of choice rather than being ripped off.
    Also might I point out that people already do pay for their health care in the form of national insurance and tax. It is free at the point of access, not free.

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