If you're one of the few Australians who have come across the words ‘trans fats' you would be excused if you believed it was an American problem and had little relevance to Australia. After all, margarines - once considered the major source of trans fats in Australia – recreated themselves to lower the incidence of these damaging fats in unsaturated brands some years ago.
To this day, the labels on more expensive margarine spreads in supermarkets say they have "less than 1 per cent trans". But don't be fooled. Plenty of the popular cheaper brands of unsaturated margarines have an alarmingly high 8 percent trans. And it doesn't stop there.
According to nutritionist, Rosemary Stanton, the Australian Consumers Association recently tested 55 foods and found that one third had high trans levels. A burger and fries had 23 per cent trans, while sausage rolls, pasties, nuggets, croissants, crackers, bagel crisps and chocolate nut spreads also had high levels. None, however, had reference to trans fat on product information or labelling.
The irony is that trans fats were first added to foods as a healthier alternative to saturated fats. However, further research - done after the fact - shows that trans fats are no different. Like saturated fats, they increase ‘bad' LDL cholesterol.
Furthermore, they also decrease ‘good' protective HDL cholesterol (saturated fats increase this one), raise triglyceride levels and increase blood levels of another harmful fat called Lp(a).
Studies show that a 2 percent increase in kilojoules from trans fats raises the incidence of heart disease by almost 25 per cent. Trans also increases inflammatory reactions within the body - including those associated with diabetes and sudden death from cardiac causes. And many of the adverse effects are greater in those who are overweight, a problem for the majority of Australian adults.
Researchers have also highlighted problems when trans fats are consumed during pregnancy or lactation, since they can interfere with the enzyme needed to produce fats that are essential for the structure of the brain.
The challenge is that there's trans fat in an alarming number of foods that we blithely consume. Even worse, the Australian government, companies and, even, individuals, appear to turn a blind eye to the problem. In fact, no surveys have been published to show how much trans fat Australians are consuming. Not so in America.
At Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., the findings on research conducted on monkeys was damning. Those that consumed low-calorie diets for six years, with 8 percent of those calories coming from trans fats – a figure that many of us could unwittingly be consuming - developed a ‘spare tire'.
"We believed they couldn't get obese because we didn't give them enough calories to get fat," said Lawrence L. Rudel, a researcher on the project. However, they were wrong.
When compared to monkeys eating monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, trans fat monkeys had a 7.2 percent increase, as opposed to only 1.8 percent in the control group. In addition, trans fat monkeys had 30 percent more abdominal fat.
But not everyone's sitting on their hands. New York City – where the use of lead paint was banned in 1960 and, more recently, smoking in restaurants in 2003 – is once again leading the fight to protect public health. Despite being famous for its restaurants and take-out joints, it has banned the use of trans fats in food service establishments. Planned to be phased in over the next 18 months, it already has other American states following suit.
In Australia, the news isn't as good. Although McDonalds switched from beef fat to oil for the frying of foods in 2004, which helped reduce the saturated fat content, the oil contains 8 percent trans fat.
Even worse news comes from a senior chemist at a major food company. According to him, the canola used in many processed foods here in Australia can contain up to 30 percent trans fat.
So what can we do about it?
- Become aware. According to Dr David Katz, a professor of public health at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. there is no safe level of trans fat. He likens it to mercury and lead, slow poisons that consumers would be shocked to find in their food.
- Read between the lines. Trans fat occurrence in foodstuffs is virtually non existent on labeling. The way around this is to avoid processed foods that contain vegetable oil as an ingredient, especially partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
- Avoid fast foods, as these appear to be major culprits – whether it's deep frying, spreads or baked goods like donuts and cookies.
- Remember, fresh is still best.