Many consumers must be wondering about the special attention being paid on declaration of trans fats (TFA) content in packed foods in some of the imported food products. The common perception is that saturated fat is not desirable and therefore foods that do not contain high levels of this category of fat are relatively safe. The health risks posed by TFA are well documented in western literature though Indian food safety agencies did not bother about it till recently. Hydrogenated fats which are the major sources of TFA still continue to be made in India with all its adverse impact on the consumer.
Trans fats are those containing the trans isomer of unsaturated fats, generated during the partial dehydrogenation (PHO) in order to modify the melting point to suit users like the bakery industry which could make superior baked goods when these plastic fats are incorporated in the recipes. The margarine industry also got into the PHO wagon when it found that butter substitutes made with PHO has vastly superior spreadability characteristics compared to that made with lard, as has been the practice before. Who does not like a butter like substance that can be taken out of the refrigerator and used straight away without waiting it to attain room temperature and this attribute was exploited by the industry to spawn out products that became instant hit with the consumer within a short time.
Why should TFA be condemned and avoided, if it is found in natural food items like milk, consumed widely world over? True not only animal milk, even human milk contains low levels of TFA, 1-7% of the total fat but these are comparatively harmless, especially the conjugated linoleyl acid (CLA) containing fats and mothers milk is a dilute product with low fat levels. When it comes to PHO, the situation is totally different because the TFA content in these man made products can be as high as 45% and most baked foods contain 35-50% fat in them. Though it was known almost 35 years ago that presence of TFA can cause high risk in terms of heart diseases, no worth while attempts were made to regulate their use by any country. The earliest to demonstrate the earnestness to tackle this menace was Denmark which banned use of PHO in foods by laying a very low limit of 2% in any oil or fat marketed in that country and 1 gm per day in human foods. World Health Organization has stipulated an upper limit of 1% of daily calories consumed that can be derived from trans fats in foods
As TFA is unnatural, the human system cannot break down it in the body leading to accumulation in the arteries causing the LDL levels to rise and HDL levels to go down. The LDL to HDL ratio consequently goes up, the rate in increase being more than double compared to saturated fats, spelling disaster in the form of Cardio Vascular Disease (CVD) to those consuming foods with high trans fats regularly. Besides There are scattered reports blaming consumption of TFA for many dreaded diseases like Alzheimer's, Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity, Liver dysfunction, Infertility in women etc most of which need further confirmation and consensus.
Indian authorities woke up to the dangers posed by TFA only recently, that too because of the dust and heat generated by the media and some health conscious consumer groups. Though the whole world is moving swiftly towards a regime free of TFA, there is no restraint on the domestic food industry which continues to manufacture hundreds of food items with high content of TFAs and the catering sector is slowly poisoning the consumers in this country by catering to them with high TFA containing foods. In the absence of any government regulations and absence of social accountability, one gets the unmistakable impression that hotels, restaurants, multi national fast food chains and the low profile street vendors are still using oils containing unacceptable levels of TFA with scant regard for human health.
According to knowledgeable sources it is time that the country wakes to the reality of TFA dangers and take concrete action on a long term basis. Such an action plan must include regulatory measures, by legislative action, to be adopted to put a threshold limit of TFAs levels, force the fat industry to make 'zero trans' fats, enforce mandatory labeling of packed food items and edible oils giving information about TFA content. Such a scheme must bring the catering sector into the ambit of compulsory declaration of TFA in their preparations and evolve compulsory logo for inclusion in the label to distinguish products that contain zero TFA, less fat, less sugar, less sodium, more proteins, more fibers and zero cholesterol.