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What are trans-fats and how dangerous are they?

Gayatri Vinayak
·5-min read
the type "Trans Fat 0g" circled in red on a nutrition label
the type "Trans Fat 0g" circled in red on a nutrition label

In a move that could spell the end of hydrogenated oils and Vanaspati ghee, India has rolled out regulations for limit trans fats in oils and fat. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has issued guidelines to limit trans fats to 3 per cent by 2021 and 2 per cent by 2023.

The reduction from the current permissible limit of 5 per cent is being done through an amendment to the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations.

The regulation comes in the wake of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) call for eliminating transfats globally by 2023. This move also aims to reduce the incidence of heart ailments in the country, with one in four deaths in India due to cardiac diseases.

This becomes even more vital in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw most deaths in patients who had co-morbidities, including heart ailments.

We take a look at what trans fats are and why they are so dangerous.

What are trans fats?

The unhealthiest among all fats, trans fats increase the bad cholesterol levels (LDL) in the body while lowering the good cholesterol levels (HDL). Trans fats come in both natural and man-made forms. While a limited amount of trans fats may be present naturally in some food items such as meat and dairy products, deep-fried food and processed and baked food such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, some packaged popcorn and chips, pre-mixes such as pancake mixes contain industrially-manufactured trans-fat.

The biggest culprits, though, are Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHO). Hydrogenation is the process of adding hydrogen to oil to make it thicker, and to increase its shelf life. In India, Vanaspati Ghee, a type of shortening made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, is sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to ghee and butter.

A cheaper, (un)healthier alternative

PHOs were discovered In 1901 by German scientist Wilhelm Normann. PHOs in the form of margarine and shortening were promoted and used for a long time as they were thought to be healthier alternatives to saturated fats. Vanaspati ghee was brought into the country in the 1930s as a cheap substitute to the more expensive desi ghee.

While the inventors of PHO received a Nobel Prize in 1912, over the decades that followed, health experts and scientists started to realise how dangerous it was. Denmark became the first country to ban trans fats in food in 2003. Countries such as Norway, South Africa, Singapore, Austria, Hungary and Ecuador have since followed.

India has found it challenging to regulate trans fats in food, due to lobbying from the food industry. But it has been working towards limiting trans fats. In 2011, India first set the regulation to limit trans fats to 10 per cent in oils and fats. In 2015, this was further brought down to 5 per cent and in 2019, FSSAI proposed the draft to limit trans fats in food to not more than 2 per cent.

Dangers of trans fats

As per the WHO, around 5.4 lakh deaths happen annually due to the intake of industrially-produced trans fats.

There are two types of cholesterol in your body:

High-density lipoprotein (LDL): The good cholesterol that takes excess cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver, which then removes it from your body

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Bad cholesterol that can build up in the walls of arteries, raising your chances of getting strokes and cardiac arrest.

Industrially produced trans fats do not provide any benefit to your body. Rather, they are harmful because they:

  • Increase bad cholesterol levels (LDL)

  • Lower good cholesterol levels

  • This can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries, increasing your risk of getting heart ailments

  • Since most trans fats are present in baked goods, eating such food can also lead to unhealthy weight gain, which in turn can cause a host of other problems.

How to limit trans fats in your food

Here is how you can avoid consuming trans fats:

  • Read nutritional facts in packaged goods: Transfats may come in the form of hydrogenated oils, shortenings, partially hydrogenated oils in any packaged good. Also, even if the product claims to be transfat free, look in the ingredients list for hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils.

  • Limit packaged goods: As far as possible, avoid buying packaged products such as chips, biscuits or baked products which may contain transfats. Rather try making pizzas, chips and cakes at home where you have complete control over the ingredients.

  • Eat fresh: Consume fresh fruits and vegetables and opt for snacks which do not contain trans fats such as nuts, yoghurt and sprouts.

  • Avoid hydrogenated oil/ghee: Avoid vanaspati ghee while cooking or frying. Use desi ghee from grass-fed cows or healthier oils such as groundnut oil, mustard oil, rice bran oil or olive oil, instead.

Along with trans fats, it is also a good idea to limit the intake of saturated fats. These fats are primarily found in meat, poultry, dairy items such as butter, cheese and ghee, oils such as coconut and palm oil, and in many processed food.

While new studies have stated that it may not be a good idea to completely cut off their intake, it is advisable to limit saturated fats to not more than 30g a day for men, and 20g a day for women. Excessive intake of saturated fats has been linked to increased levels of cholesterol in the blood.

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