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The Food Standards Agency

The Food Standards Agency is an independent food safety watchdog set up by an Act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food.

The FSA's stated aims are, by 2006, to:

However in the case of trans fats, the FSA is a disappointment. It appears to be taking a studiously soft line on the issue, and obfuscating the facts, for example by confusing the harmful synthetic trans fats arising from hydrogenation, and the beneficial or harmless trans fats which occur naturally in meat and dairy produce.

The FSA also is wishes to present these harmful trans fats - in reality a form of slow-acting metabolic poison - as essentially similar to saturated fats. In fact, they are much worse in a variety of ways.

In particular, ordinary saturated fats are a food that has been in our diet since before 'we' were even humans, and are a good source of dietary energy. The problems associated with saturated fats arise only when they are consumed in excess of our calorific requirements.

By contrast the synthetic trans fats are not found in nature and are thus completely novel to our bodies which do not 'know' how to deal with them. They serve no nutritional purpose and are implicated in a wide range of health problems from cardiovascular disease to type 2 diabetes.

The following letter from the Agency is a classic piece of misrepresentation of the trans fat issue and thus worth reproducing in full.

FSA letter on trans fats, 21 September 2004

"[I] thought it may be helpful to set out the background concerns about trans fats and the situation on intakes in the UK. The main issue with hydrogenated fats relates to their content of trans unsaturated fatty acids (trans fats). These trans fats occur in nature in dairy produce and the flesh of ruminants, e.g. beef, lamb. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils also contain trans fats, which are produced during the process of hydrogenation used to turn liquid oil into solid fat; this is the main source of trans fats in the UK diet.

Trans-fats have been shown to raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of coronary heart disease. The adverse effect of trans-fats is similar to that of saturated fatty acids (found in animal fats and dairy produce). The quantity of trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the average diet, however, is much lower than that of saturated fats, and average dietary intake has been reduced since partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were reduced in many UK margarines.

Current average dietary intakes in the UK are considerably lower than the 1994 Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy dietary recommendation that trans fats should provide no more than 2.0% total energy, or about 5g per day. In 1986/87 average intakes were 2.0% total energy and by 2000/01 this had reduced to an average intake of 1.1% total energy.

Most people in the UK do not eat large quantities of trans fat. Some manufacturers are already looking, on a voluntary basis, to reduce further the levels of trans fat in their products. Therefore, unless someone consumes large quantities of cakes and biscuits they are unlikely to be consuming levels of trans fat that would be of concern. In these circumstances there are no plans at this stage to rate trans-fats as a priority for centrally co-ordinated action over and above current Govt. action to promote a balanced diet within which fats of all types should be consumed sparingly.

Jenny Wolfe, FSA.

Our response (22 September 2004)

I am already familiar with the FSA position on trans fats which you have helpfully set out below. I'm afraid this position really is not adequate and fails to recognise the many ways in which the synthetic trans fats are far more harmful than saturated fats.

You are also confusing the synthetic trans fats that arise through hydrogenation with the naturally-occurring trans fats found in meat, milk, etc. It is only the synthetic trans fats that have been shown to be harmful. The natural trans fats are not harmful, and some have been shown to be positively beneficial to health.

The food industry deliberately confuses the two - why the FSA also should do so is a mystery to me.

For more information on this you might care to peruse the tfX website: www.tfx.org.uk. In particular I suggest you read the page on natural trans fats:www.tfx.org.uk/page62.html.

It is high time the UK Government and the FSA started to take this seriously. You should be following the examples of the USA in terms of labelling as an immediate measure, and that of Denmark in banning all but the lowest levels of synthetic trans fats from the diet.

Until then, I'm afraid that the FSA's soft line and obfuscation of the facts makes it appear that the FSA prefers to protect the economic interests of the food industry, in preference to the health of the British public.

Oliver Tickell, tfX.

We could have added that the FSA's assertion that "most people do not eat large quantities of trans fats", and that "unless someone consumes large quantities of cakes and biscuits they are unlikely to be consuming levels of trans fat that would be of concern" appear to be consigning that minority of people who do eat lots trans fats, possibly in the form of cakes and biscuits, but also as ice cream, synthetic cream, fast food, margarines and shortenings, pastries and pies, chips and other fried foods, to the health dustbin: at heightened risk of various forms of ill-health notably but not limited to cardiovascular disease.

Why is the FSA so weak on trans fats?

We don't know. To give them credit, they have made one fairly strong statement on trans fats:

"The trans fats found in food containing hydrogenated vegetable oil are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits. They raise the type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Some evidence suggests that the effects of these trans fats may be worse than saturated fats. It's important to try to eat less of both saturated fat and trans fats."

We have also been forwarded this more recent statement by the FSA on trans fat labelling by the well-known food writer Helen Lewis:

"The Agency is pressing for the labelling of TFAs in foods at European Union level. We recognise that some food products contain significant amount of TFAs and, importantly, we also recognise that some consumers are concerned about the effect of TFAs on their individual cholesterol levels. Therefore, our view is that information about TFAs should be included in nutrition labelling in a way that is helpful to the consumer."

What they say is of course an understatement - trans fats do far more damage to health than messing up our cholesterol. But it is nonetheless useful to have it on the record that the FSA now support trans fat labelling, presumably making it mandatory where present (though they have not quite said this).

This is definitely progress relative to their former position: that it is up to the consumer to eat less trans fat - but without knowing the trans fat content of foods.

But it falls well short of the position that we think they should be taking: that the harmful artificial trans fats should be banned in foodstuffs, by way of regulations based on those that exist in Denmark (see Denmark's regulations here).

At the very least they should be giving out advice that those most vulnerable to health damage by trans fats - babies, children, expectant and nursing mothers and middle aged or elderly people - should eliminate trans fats from their diet. And they should be advising that institutional caterers serving schools, hospitals, care centres and care homes should be serving zero trans fat meals.

The elimination of synthetic trans fats from the British diet would be an effective and low-cost measure that would do much to improve health and reduce premature mortality. Yet the FSA is playing down the issue and misrepresenting known medical facts to make trans fats appear only marginally detrimental. We are, simply, mystified.

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