Mounting evidence over the past decade that links trans fatty acids (TFAs) to greater risk of heart disease has meant that their inclusion in food has become increasingly controversial. Key to the issue of TFAs is whether voluntary arrangements are sufficient in the reduction of trans fats or whether legislation is needed to restrict them and/or specific labelling measures required.

TFAs are found naturally at very low levels in foods such as butter, cheese, milk, beef and lamb. Artifical TFAs are also produced as a by-product of a manufacturing process known as partial hydrogenation. Partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils is a process that turns them into semi-solids, giving them a higher melting point, longer shelf-life and more stable flavour, thereby making them better suited for use in the food industry.

Trans fats are banned in some places including Denmark, New York City and California.  There are regularly fresh calls for trans fats to be banned, labelled or limited within Europe and the UK.

The current debate concerns:

  1. Whether to legislate against trans fats and at what level; 
  2. Whether labelling of artificial trans fats should be introduced via the new EU Food Information Regulation (FIR).

Some argue for legislation and that a 2% legislative limit in the fats and oils used in food manufacturing and cooking would remove the need for labelling and would encompass those small/medium sized producers and retailers who are unaware of or resisting reducing trans fats in foods.

In April 2011, two doctors from the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in the BMJ that bans on TFAs in foods have shown that legislation can work to significantly reduce consumption of TFAs, that there are adequate alternatives available, and that replacing trans fats does not necessarily result in increased consumption of saturated fat. 

However, massive reformulation efforts have already been undertaken to remove the trans fats from various fried and processed foods.  In 2007, the Food Standards Agency carried out a review of trans fats and concluded UK consumption was lower than countries such as the US and that voluntary action from food manufacturers had been highly successful. 

The Food & Drink Federation (FDF) has recently reported that TFAs now only account for 0.8% of food energy on the UK market, which is lower than the recommended maximum limit of 2% (National Diet and Nutrition Survey, 2010).  Finally, a recent survey of FDF members showed that the majority have now eliminated artificial trans fats from their products or intend to do so by the end of 2011 in line with the Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal.  This illustrates that the flexible voluntary approach is working and there does not appear therefore to be a valid health justification for restriction by legislation. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament refused a proposal to ban trans fats in April 2011.

However, discussions at EU level on the FIR have raised the additional proposal of mandatory trans fats labelling.  The draft regulation is to be negotiated next with the European Council of Ministers. The current proposed regulation would require food manufacturers to list key nutritional information, including fat levels, saturated fat and artificial trans fats.  Some exceptions to the rules include alcoholic drinks, gift packages, seasonal confectionery, and non-prepacked food intended for immediate consumption.

At present, there are no methods of analysis applicable to a wide range of foods that can distinguish between TFA which are naturally present in foods (e.g. in ruminant products) and those formed during the processing of fats, oils or foods. This is because of the overlap in TFA profiles of ruminant fats and hydrogenated oils and the varying proportions of TFA isomers among different hydrogenated fats. ( The practicalities of enforcement therefore remain to be seen. 

The stated aim of the draft legislation, is to “modernise, simplify and clarify” food labelling within the EU, in which case on both a practical and health agenda the mandatory addition of TFA's could well have been left out.