Used in everything from baked goods and crackers, to margarines and shortenings, trans fats (otherwise known as hydrogenated fats) have been around for 20 years. Not only do they help prolong a product’s shelf life, but they also improve the taste and consistency of food. There’s only one problem - they are not healthy.
Although some trans fats are naturally occurring in meats and dairy products, many of the varieties used to prepare foods are man-made through a hydrogenation process. Simply put, hydrogen gas is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them thicker or more solid. But it’s what trans fat does to the human body that has Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) worried.
Trans Fat Health Concerns
Because trans fats are thicker than saturated fats, they are more likely to clog arteries which can lead to coronary heart disease. They also raise overall cholesterol levels while reducing the amount of healthy HDL cholesterol in the body. As trans fat exists in so many foods, recent research from the University of Maryland has shown children as young as eight with elevated cholesterol —increasing their risk for heart attacks.
To help consumers take control of their fat intake, the Health Canada has required that saturated fats and dietary cholesterol be listed on food labels since 1993. This past December, they took it a step further by mandating that food manufacturers also list the amount of trans fat in their products. Currently restaurants are not required to provide nutrition labeling for their food products unless they claim they are low fat or low sodium. However, as customers become savvy about their health, it’s a good idea to have the nutritional content available.
With trans fats an international health concern, many manufacturers and restaurant owners are voluntarily replacing their trans fats with alternative solutions such as saturated fats, soybean oils, and canola oils. In fact, Denmark has completely removed trans fat from their food supply and New York City has asked all its restaurants to eliminate trans fat from their offerings, on a voluntary basis.
What about Canada?
Canada ranks high in trans fat consumption, and many Canadians think more should be done than just labeling foods. In November 2004, a motion to replace trans fat was introduced by the NDP. A task force was set up in conjunction with the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Health Canada, and as of April 2005, they were assessing the situation and possible alternatives.
In the meantime, Health Canada has allowed the industry to go ahead with the labelling. Perhaps consumers will take the initiative and decide for themselves how much saturated, trans and unsaturated fats they should be consuming.