From Wednesday, South Africa is a reduced trans-fatty acid zone, with much lower levels of the evil fats that contribute to the risk of heart attacks and other ills, and no false claims about them. With a large number of caveats, that is, including just how you define trans-fats and how much faith you have in the cut-throat instincts of those in the food business. By PHILLIP DE WET.
From 17 August, you’ll be hard pressed to find your fix of the nastiest type of fat, should you happen to be in the mood for a nice heart attack. At the stroke of midnight new restrictions kicked in, limiting the allowed level of trans-fatty acids in food to a maximum of 2% of the oil content, and half that for anything so bold as to claim to be free of trans-fats altogether.
Unless those trans-fats come in the way nature might have intended, but more on that later.
Under new health department regulations, restaurants may not serve, retailers may not sell and importers may not import anything meant for human consumption with a high level of trans-fats. The rules aren’t the tightest in the world and penalties aren’t particularly tough (unless you get busted with a big consignment of food and it is destroyed). But they represent a big step forward in legislating good nutrition and so, theoretically, reduce the burden of disease. Artificial trans-fats, you see, are evil.
In modern nutrition there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, good fats and bad fats, but trans-fats stand out as one of the most loathed common food ingredients. Much like chlorofluorocarbon or CFCs (which ate the ozone layer but were awesome refrigerants), man-made trans-fats were created to solve a problem, and did so fabulously. Vegetable oil tends to have a short shelf life and an oily feel in the mouth. Partially hydrogenate those oils, though, and you get a slightly harder oil, making for cookies, mayonnaise and chips that both last longer and go down better. What the processed-food industry didn’t know until relatively recently, though, is that those benefits come with deadly side-effects. And unlike CFCs, trans-fats don’t harm by proxy. They raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol at the same time, but also help thicken arteries, increase the build-up of plaque in those thicker arteries, and cause more inflammation. You could say they are designed to cause heart attacks or strokes.
Enter the new regulations, which are part of a raft of new rules around food health and safety to come from the health department this year, sometimes based on new but not necessarily undisputed research. Especially when implementation would be relatively uncontroversial, and where other countries have already led the way. One example is the plan to ban Bisphenol A, or BPA, from baby bottles. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that can seep from plastic bottles into liquid and affect early development – probably, depending on the level of exposure, and with other riders. But the consensus is strong enough that new parents would likely lynch any manufacturer or importer that dares demure.
Ditto for trans-fats. Though there are cost implications for food processing companies, there is no good excuse not to reduce or entirely eliminate the artificial type – and in the process almost certainly reduce the incidence of heart attacks, the health scourge for any country not suffering an HIV epidemic or widespread malnutrition. They just need some incentive.
“Some companies got their houses in order in places like Europe but were still dumping bad stuff here,” says nutritionist Hettie Schönfeldt. “Don’t think people will do the right thing unless you legislate it.”
Schönfeldt, a professor at the University of Pretoria, became deeply involved in the trans-fat regulation debate earlier this year, when she conducted a scientific literature review and proposed a change to the draft regulations that saw naturally-occurring trans-fats excluded entirely.
The problem is that both the meat and milk from ruminant animals contain trans-fats before any processing. Until recently – and in some cases even now – those were also considered harmful. “In general we say trans-fats should be limited to 1% of total fat intake, and natural trans-fats will contribute to that,” says Erika Ketterer, the head of research and programme development at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. “There is emerging evidence that says the trans-fats from natural sources have less of an effect on cholesterol levels, but for the time being, and considering that those also contain high levels of saturated fats, we’re waiting for more evidence on the effects of those.”
Playing it safe when deciding how to eat healthily is one thing, but screwing with the beef and milk industry without very good reason is something else entirely. In fact, says Schönfeldt, there is not only a great deal of research that shows natural trans-fats don’t contribute to heart attacks, but also reason to suspect that they do some good as antioxidants. So South Africa, like several other countries, followed the safe path, and excluded the natural variant from both restrictions and reporting requirements.
That introduces yet another complication in the implementation of the new rules. For any product that contains both the natural and the artificial type of trans-fat, manufacturers have to record which is which at the “mixing bowl” stage. Should their products be tested and come back with trans-fat levels in excess of what is now allowed, they need to be ready to defend their product.
That is, if anyone ever challenges those products. The department of health, which could not be reached for comment, doesn’t have the resources to test for such things, and has previously said it will rely on food companies to act honestly. It is perhaps more realistic to expect competitors to police one another, but that leaves consumers without a champion, or even much information. Disclosing the level of trans-fats in food is not yet mandatory, it’s just illegal to have too much.
And that is ignoring one of the primary sources of trans-fats: frying oil that is reused too often. We wouldn’t recommend relying on the local fish ‘n chips shop to do regular testing.
So are the regulations worth it? Will they make any difference? In a word, yes, but in the same discreet, long-term way that banning CFCs from coolant systems has, and banning BPA from baby bottles will. Over time it will reduce both demand and supply of artificial trans-fatty acids, which should lead to a reduction in the associated health problems, which eventually means longer, healthier lives with lower healthcare costs. As long as you have the money to eat processed foods in the first place, and don’t get felled by TB or Aids-related illness. DM
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