Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat, which can occur naturally or can be artificially produced. Naturally-occurring trans fats are produced in the gut of some animals such as cows and sheep and generally account for approximately 2-5% of fat content. The foods made from these animals including meat (beef and lamb) and dairy products like milk and butterfat can contain small quantities of trans fats. These act in conjunction with other fats in the body such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and thereby increase the total level of cholesterol in the body, which is bad for the heart. For this reason, doctors advise avoiding red meats like mutton, lamb, and beef.
How are trans fats produced artificially?
Artificially produced trans fats are formed during the manufacturing process known as hydrogenation. In this process, vegetable oil is exposed to hydrogen and is said to become hydrogenated. This converts the liquid form of the vegetable oil into solidified fat at room temperature. Partially hydrogenated oils are the major source of artificial trans fat content when fried food is made in this oil. The hydrogenation process is used to manufacture Vanaspati, which hardens and stabilizes liquid vegetable oils. Importantly, Vanaspati can contain as high as 50-60% trans fat content of the total fat content but can vary with the manufacturing process. The trans fats present in these partially hydrogenated oils maintain their taste and smell and also increases the shelf-life of the final food products.
Transfer of trans fats to the food
The trans fats enter the food from the use of partially hydrogenated oils during manufacture or preparation of the food items. Trans fats can be found in various types of prepared and packaged foods. These include fried foods like vadas, namkeen, microwave popcorn, and samosas; baked foods like biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, cookies, and crackers; as well as breakfast sandwiches, pies, tarts, cream-filled candies, frozen pizzas, margarine (stick or tub) and other spreads. Trans fats impart a desirable taste and texture to these food items and can be produced cheaply and usually last a long time. Primarily for this reason, many fast-food outlets, street-food vendors, as well as restaurants use trans fats to deep-fry foods, such as chicken fries, French fries, and parathas because oils with trans fats can be used many times in commercially available deep fryers. This is highly profitable for the food business operators, however, at the cost of the health of its customers.
What do the international food regulatory authorities say?
Since these partially hydrogenated oils are unhealthy for human consumption, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has labeled these oils as unsafe and are no longer categorized as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in foods for human consumption. Other countries have also introduced regulations for limiting the use of trans fatty acids. Some of these countries have opted for polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) including alpha-linolenic (Omega 3) and linoleic (Omega 6) acids as components of a healthy diet. Countries such as Denmark, Canada, USA (New York City) and Australia and New Zealand have taken the lead in adopting initiatives to reduce trans fats intake in the diet.
What does the FSSAI’s say?
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), India’s apex authority on food safety and standards, in August 2015 had fixed the upper limit of trans fat content to a maximum of 5% in interesterified vegetable fat/oil, margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oil. Since the timeline for compliance is long over, the FSSAI has instructed all the Food Safety Commissioners to inspect the manufacturing units of edible oil, with the aim of checking whether the upper 5% maximum limit of trans fats is being compiled.
The FSSAI has also reviewed the current scientific evidence on health effects of trans fats. The findings indicate that trans fats have no intrinsic health value other than their calorie value, which is in accordance with the current dietary recommendations regarding trans fats including the recommendations of the World Health Organization.
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- Compliance with the notification dated 4 August 2015 revising maximum limit of trans fatty acids to be not more than 5% in interesterified vegetable fat/oil, margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Notification [File No. 4 (37) 2017 / States / RCD / FSSAI dated 24 August, 2017]. Available at: https://fssai.gov.in/dam/jcr:8859ff99…/Order_Trans_Fatty_Acids_31_08_2017.pdf
- Regulation of trans fatty acids (TFA) in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVOs). Available at: http://www.old.fssai.gov.in/Portals/0/Regulation_of_TFA_.pdf
American Heart Association. The American Heart Association’s diet and lifestyle recommendations. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp#.Wfc7fmiCzIU