Hidden danger - trans fats in foods

CHOICE finds some manufacturers still sneak unhealthy trans fats into our foods.
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  • Updated:26 Jun 2009

01.Trans Australia

Fat map of Australia

In brief

  • Many of the foods CHOICE tested in 2005 still contain unacceptably high levels of trans fats.
  • There’s no real need for food manufacturers to use these heart-stopping fats. Some manufacturers have cut back, while others have stopped using trans fats altogether.

They rarely rate a mention on the label, but the trans fats hidden in many processed foods are worse for your health than saturated fats. In 2005, CHOICE tested more than 50 processed foods and found many contained trans fats at unacceptably high levels. We’ve retested and can reveal that, while the fast-food chains have reduced their levels of trans fats, and some of the foods we tested previously have eliminated trans fats altogether, others now contain even more than before. Foods such as pies, cakes and doughnuts may contain trans fats without you even knowing about it.

In 2005, CHOICE called for Australian regulations to require manufacturers to include the amount of trans fat as well as saturated fat on the label, as happens now in the US and Canada. We are still waiting.

The previous federal government set up the National Collaboration on Trans Fats with the aim of reducing the amount of trans fats in the Australian food supply, but manufacturers are still not required to identify the amount of trans fats in their products. In the US, the use of trans fats in foods has decreased 50% since labelling was introduced.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2009 but is still a useful guide today.

Global restrictions

While trans fats are not completely banned anywhere, some jurisdictions have imposed tighter restrictions on their use than in Australia.

  • Denmark (in 2003) and Switzerland (in 2008) have banned the sale of food products in which trans fats are more than 2% of the total fat.
    UK regulations require hydrogenated fats to be identified in the ingredients list on the label. But in the European Union (which includes Denmark and the UK), labels don’t have to disclose the level of trans fats unless the manufacturer is making a nutrition claim.
  • Since 1 January 2006 food manufacturers in the US have been required to list trans fats on the nutrition label immediately under saturated fat. New York and Philadelphia have banned restaurants and fast-food outlets from serving foods containing more than 0.5g of trans fats per serving; California has legislation in place that bans the use of industrial trans fats in restaurants and fast-food outlets from 1 January 2010, and bakers who make doughnuts will have until 2011 to comply. These actions have had a substantial impact on the use of trans fats in the US. (The food giant Kraft, for example, reduced the trans fat content in about 650 of its products to meet the labelling deadline.)
  • Canada also requires food labels to show the level of trans fats. In June 2007, Health Canada put the Canadian food industry on notice to limit the trans fat content of its products within two years. It set the limits at 2% of total fat for margarine and cooking oils and 5% of total fat for all other foods, including ingredients sold to restaurants. To ensure progress, Health Canada has been analysing a wide variety of foods and publishing the results.

What CHOICE wants

We want it made mandatory that the amount of trans fat and saturated fat be included on the label. We believe the national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is too complacent about the well-established risks to health from trans fats; our test results clearly show its kid-glove approach isn’t working. Labelling has had a substantial impact on the levels of trans fats in processed foods in the US and Canada; there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t have a similar impact here. But it’s also important we don’t see trans fats reduced at the expense of increased levels of saturated fats in some foods.

FSANZ claims its ultimate goal is “a safe food supply and well-informed consumers”. Trans fats offer no nutritional benefits and CHOICE believes consumers should be informed about how to avoid them.



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