freelance journalist, print journalist, online journalist, copywriter, content editor, freelance editor, health and lifestyle, blogger Tired of trans fats? | Christine Morgan - Journalist
+44 (0)7931 342850

Today the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has made the headlines because it’s calling for the food manufacturing industry to ban the use of trans fats in the UK. Yawn, I thought. Nutrition experts have been calling for such a ban for absolutely ages, the real news here is that NICE is finally sticking its nose in (if you haven’t seen the headlines, NICE claims banning them could help lower the number of people developing cardiovascular disease, since trans fats are widely believed to increase cholesterol).

Then I watched a TV phone-in show where they brought up the subject, and was quite surprised to find that, apart from one person on the panel, nobody really knew what trans fats were (including the show’s host). So no wonder as a population we’re thought to be eating too much of them, since most people wouldn’t know a trans fat if it slapped them straight in the face. So here’s a quick lowdown on today’s public enemy number one.

Trans fats start life as vegetable fats. But because fats are generally more easily handled as solid fats than liquids (in the food manufacturing industry, that is), the liquid vegetable fats (think oils) go through a chemical process whereby they are treated with hydrogen (in other words, hydrogenation), which makes them solid. Another advantage to food manufacturers of hydrogenation is that hydrogenated fats have a longer shelf life than liquid vegetable fats – that is, they don’t go rancid so quickly.

Something happens to them during that process – and I’m being really simplistic here, obviously, because nobody wants a chemistry lesson, least of all me – and the now-solid, or hydrogenated, fats affect the human body differently compared to when they were liquid fats, and not in a good way. Think of it like this – trans fats are more like the other type of solid fat, that is, saturated fat, and we all know too much of that isn’t good for our hearts (in fact, trans fats seem to have a worse effect on the body than saturated fats because, while both types increase levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol, trans fats scores a double by lowering levels of ‘good’ fats too… yes, complicated, I know).

The reason they use vegetable fats and turn them into hard trans fats instead of simply using already-solid saturated fats in the first place is, of course, down to cost. Vegetable fats are cheaper.

Well that’s all you need to know really. Trans fats have no nutritional value and they muck up your cholesterol levels big time. Next thing to know – and this really is crucial – is which foods contain trans fats. Now that’s a lot easier to explain – just think take-aways, junk, fast and processed foods. All the stuff you already know isn’t particularly healthy anyway.

So why a ban all of a sudden? Well I can’t say why exactly NICE has decided to wade in on the subject at this precise moment, but existing bans in other countries have shown a significant improvement in public health (particularly in the area of cardiovascular disease) just a few years after banning trans fats. The statistic I heard today was that rates of heart disease had fallen in Denmark by 20 percent just two years after banning trans fats. That’s pretty impressive.

Is it a human rights issue though? Should we fight for the right to eat foods we know are bad for us if we so wish? After all, we know smoking has a negative affect on health, but dare to talk of an outright ban and the human rights issue would get well and truly shoved under your nose.

So where do I stand on trans fats? I really don’t know. But take my advice. Go buy some doughnuts now before they disappear off our shelves forever.