Europe must address trans fats 'scandal', says food campaigner

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Trans fats Trans fat Nutrition

Europe should follow Denmark's example and force food makers to
clearly label the presence of trans fats, a move that would bring
huge health benefits and bring European labelling into line with
the US.

This is the thinking behind the UK Campaign Against Trans Fats in Food, a web-based organisation that aims to put pressure on industry and regulators and raise awareness of the dangers of trans fats.

"I started this campaign a couple years ago from the perspective of a consumer,"​ Oliver Tickell, founder of the UK campaign against trans fats in food told FoodNavigator​.

"Someone told me that hydrogenated oil was bad for you, and I was shocked when I found out for myself.

"I am still shocked that we allow this stuff in our food - I think this is one the public health scandals of our time."

Trans fats, which are mainly found in (partially) hydrogenated vegetable oil, common ingredients in thousands of food products, have been negatively linked to raising blood cholesterol levels and promoting heart disease.

Although European consumers are becoming more aware that trans fatty acids can lead to increased serum levels of LDL cholesterol or 'bad' cholesterol, there is no labelling to help them differentiate between products.

Research shows that when too much 'bad' cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain resulting in atherosclerosis.

"I think awareness is picking up, but from a low level. There is more awareness in the US I think partly because they eat more of it - and the issue gained enormous publicity from the launch of legal action."

Indeed it took an audacious lawsuit seen by many as ridiculous at the time to force the issue into the open. In May 2003, Stephen Joseph filed a lawsuit against Kraft, targeting the trans-fat content of Oreo's.

The issue became front-page news. Jay Leno, Rush Limbaugh and a host of other media personalities weighed in. Joseph was on Good Morning America when he heard that Kraft had agreed to remove trans fats from their cookies amid the sudden blaze of publicity.

"This was quite a shock to Americans, who I think buy into brand loyalty more than Europeans,"​ said Tickell.

Two months later, the FDA announced new labelling rules, which came into effect this year.

It is doubtful however that legal action would work in the UK. Tickell points out that access to the courts is harder. In addition, he believes that the food establishment wants to treat this issue softly and quietly, partly because of the close proximity of regulators and the regulated.

He argues for example that the British Nutrition Foundation is very influential within the FSA, and that organisations such as these tend to simply go along with the prevailing health consensus in order to make it look that the food industry is behaving responsibly.

"No one wants to complicate the message,"​ he said.

Tickell does however believe that the food industry is responsive to change. In fact, he argues that food companies have in general been far more responsive than the regulators.

"The link between the supermarket and the consumer is direct, and it is the supermarkets that are leading on this.

"Marks & Spencer for example has adverts out at the moment publicising the fact that their ready meals contain no hydrogenated fats. They have also committed to remove hydrogenated oil from their own brand range.

"Sainsbury and Tesco have made similar commitments. The Co-op has started labelling trans fats. This makes their products compatible with the US, where trans fat labelling of course came into force in January."

Tickell thinks therefore that change will most likely come from within the food industry, though he believes that regulations must be changed. Ultimately, he would like Europe to follow the example of Denmark.

In 2003, Denmark established regulations stating that fat content should contain no more than two per cent trans fats. The regulations also oblige food makers to specify whether this trans fat is synthetic or naturally occurring.

"This stands to reason, as research indicates that it is synthetic trans fat that is most dangerous,"​ said Tickell.

"And frankly, there is no excuse. Kit Kat for example, is using butter fat for its filling. If Kit Kat can do it, why can't others?

"Enough progress has been made to show that the industry does not need this that food can be made without trans fats. Nestle for example, which treats the Scandinavian market as one market, has had to change its products for the region because of the Denmark ruling.

"It wasn't necessarily easy, but they've done it. What Denmark tells us is that we can get rid of trans fats altogether, with huge health benefits as a result."

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