Friday, August 8, 2008


When erstwhile Hindustan Lever introduced 'Dalda', the look-alike of desi ghee in India long ago, no one had any clue about the danger posed by trans fats formed in hydrogenated fats during the high temperature process. Plenty of efforts went into promoting Dalda as a low cost substitute to ghee which was popular in making hundreds of food items consumed by the population. Cost differential between Dalda and Ghee even spawned an adulteration industry that made money by blending the hydrogenated fat and pure ghee in different proportions and selling off as real ghee. This led to evolution of simple techniques to detect such adulterations easily and quickly. Even to day the mandatory inclusion of Sesame oil in blend of oils used for making hydrogenated fats derives its justification because of the presence of sesamol that can be detected by colorimetric tests. It is another matter that Bunge which bought out Lever's oil business a few years ago continued with the brand Dalda but this term is no more synonymous with hydrogenated fat. Besides availability of inter esterification technique and fractionation process to make semi solid fats from palm oil, provides alternative options enabling the industry to avoid hydrogenated fats in processed products.

Recent spurt of news implicating trans fats in a multitude of health problems that include elevated coronary heart diseases, higher abdominal fat accumulation, infertility, cancer etc, many of them scientifically established with documentary proof, food safety authorities started taking preventive actions to eliminate or lessen the effect of trans fats in processed foods and the most manifested reaction was to declare the levels of trans fats in packed foods which has been classified along with saturated fats. How ever scant attention is paid to tons of trans fats served in hotels, restaurants and other eating out places as there are no regulations in place as yet. The bold initiative in the California state of USA to ban use of hydrogenated fats/trans fat containing oils in such establishments is a welcome one with far reaching implications to the health of its citizens and if emulated by others can remove an avoidable danger from the horizon.

According to present guidelines, any food containing less than 0.5 g of trans fats per serving can be declared as zero trans fat foods enabling consumers to exercise discretion during purchase of foods. However what is not clear is why an allowance of 0.5 g is permitted knowing fully well that eliminating use of hydrogenated fats in foods can ensure absence of this dangerous artifact from the food man consumes. Besides an allowance of up to maximum of 2.5 g per day is also permitted. Though there are some claims that trans fats are also generated during cooking and frying of edible oils as a part of the process regime, very little supporting evidence has been forth coming to substantiate them. However, the reported formation of small amounts of trans fats during pressure frying of foods and in extruded products while some unsaturated oils are present in the recipe and presence of trans fats in high pressure de-odorised oils need scrutiny whether they are injurious to health.

It is no wonder that some frying experts advocate a blend of oils made of sesame oil, coconut oil and palm oil as the best cooking medium because of the presence of heat activated antioxidants in sesame and high saturated but short chain fatty acids in the latter two oils. Trans fats are also known to occur naturally as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in small concentrations in some natural foods but they have been found to be beneficial unlike trans fats found in hydrogenated oils. Probably the allowance of 0.5 g permitted for the industry may be to give adequate allowance for such contingencies. Introducing restrictions on use of hydrogenated oils in processed foods as well as freshly cooked food serving joints ought to be put in place in India without delay. A total ban on manufacture of hydrogenated fats in the country and their imports can ensure such a situation. No technological justification exists to day for the continued use of these fats in any process or product.


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