The increased supply and marketing of processed food high in fat, sugar and salt are recognised as the major drivers of obesity and diet-related diseases globally.
As part of efforts to improve the healthiness of the nation’s food supply, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed regulations to classify partially hydrogenated oils (the major source of trans fats in the United States) as generally not safe to include in food.
This means US food manufacturers will soon need permission to include trans fats in their products.
Australia has few specific regulations around trans fats, and the US move prompts the question: should Australia be doing more to remove trans fats from its food supply?
Trans fat in Australia
Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in dairy and meat products, but a large proportion of the trans fats in the Australian food supply are created by food manufacturers via hydrogenation.
Hydrogenation is an industrial process that turns liquid oils into solid fats, for use in highly-processed foods such as biscuits, pastries, fast food and some margarines.
The industry advantages of hydrogenated oils are that they’re cheap, have a long shelf life, and withstand repeated heating. But there’s a major health concern about trans fats, which are strongly associated with increased risk of heart disease.
In Australia, there’s little up-to-date data on the level of trans fats in the food supply, and on how much of it is consumed.
In 2009, Food Standards Australia New Zealand estimated average intake of trans fats to be between 0.5% and 0.6% of total energy intake. This is below the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum level of 1%.
And the food industry has declared they are working hard to remove trans fat from their products.
Nonetheless, Australia lags behind many countries, including India, by not mandating that levels of trans fats be shown on food labels. What this means is that it’s nearly impossible to know whether Australian packaged food contains trans fats unless the manufacturer voluntarily includes it on the label.
For foods that aren’t labelled, such as fast food and baked goods, there’s really no certain way for Australians to know the level of trans fat they’re eating. The estimates of our trans fat consumption are based on modelled results.
Almost all regulatory moves aimed at decreasing trans fats around the world have been effective.
In 2006, for instance, the US mandated trans fat labelling for all packaged foods. The measure coincided with a 58% decline in consumption, most likely because of increased consumer awareness and product reformulation by manufacturers.
But there was an important loophole in this regulation – manufacturers could label products that contained less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving as containing no trans fats.
Consumption of multiple servings of these products could easily exceed the WHO recommendations for trans fat intakes. If it’s implemented, the FDA’s most recent proposal would effectively close this loophole.
The US move is a major step towards removing trans fat from the nation’s food supply. Even though trans fat levels are already relatively low in the United States, the move is expected to have important public health benefits.
Decreasing trans fat intake by 1% of total energy has been associated with a 12% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. Clearly, even small changes in intake have the potential to have a substantial impact on population health.
Indeed, the FDA’s proposed regulation could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths per year.
The benefits from the elimination of trans fats are likely to be even greater for people in lower socioeconomic groups because their trans fat intakes can be disproportionally high. Products containing trans fat tend to be cheaper than non-trans fat alternatives.
The bigger picture
In Australia, the government generally favours non-regulatory approaches, such as industry self-regulation, unless these approaches are shown to be less effective than other options.
Indeed, the Australian food industry recently commissioned a report that argues for substantially reduced food regulation.
In this context, and given that Australian trans fat intake is estimated to be below WHO recommended maximum levels, a focus on trans fat regulation could distract attention from much bigger problems in the Australian food system.
Still, regulations regarding trans fats are considered to be one of the least contested food policy options. And the FDA move’s should be applauded because it sets an example for other countries, including Australia.
More broadly, the US proposal sets an important precedent for using this type of regulatory approach to limit the levels of other negative nutrients, such as salt, used in processed foods.
These approaches are likely to be an important part of efforts to improve diet quality and reduce the burden of diet-related diseases.