BAN TRANS FATS?
Denmark did it and feels that others should follow
Denmark decided in 2003 to ban trans fats, making it illegal for any food to contain more than 2 percent trans fats. Offenders face hefty fines and could even be jailed.
It has been three years since the Denmark ban on trans fats took effect on 1 January 2004. And indications are that all is well. According to one recent press feature:
“Today, hardly anyone notices the difference. The french fries are still crispy. The pastries are still scrumptious. And the fried chicken is still tasty.”
And the nutrition facts are encouraging. A study in 2006 found that a serving of McDonald’s large fries and chicken nuggets in New York City contained a whopping 10.2 grams of trans fats. The same McDonald’s meal of french fries and chicken nuggets in Denmark contained just 0.33 grams of trans fats.
Dr Steen Stender, the head of the Danish Nutrition Council Trans Fats Sub-Group, who lobbied for the ban, believes strongly that other countries should follow the example of Denmark – and simply ban trans fats.
He feels that regulators in the US and Canada, for example, have adopted the wrong approach by changing trans fat labelling laws to have them listed on nutrition fact labels.
Noted Dr Steen Stender: “It’s been cited by industry that people won’t read labels, and — when they do read them — they will not necessarily understand these labels. That is a problem. Instead of warning consumers about trans and telling them what it is, we’ve simply removed it”
Dr Steen Stender, in fact, has much stronger words for countries like the US: “As they say in North America: ‘You can put poison in food, if you label it properly.’ Here in Denmark, we remove the poison and people don’t have to know anything about trans fatty acids.”
Reasons to ban trans fats
Denmark decided in 2003 to ban trans fats not only because it was concerned that trans was linked to heart disease, diabetes and other degenerative diseases. There was the added concern that trans fats might stunt the growth of fetuses in the womb.
Another reason to ban trans fats, instead of just having trans fats listed on nutrition facts labels, is that a ban covers all types of food – in restaurants, coffee shops and small stalls, hospitals, cafeterias, and every where else.
In contrast, nutrition facts labels cover only food that comes in a package. Restaurant food, and even supermarket foods that are sold loose, do not come with any nutrition facts labels.
Outcome of Denmark’s ban
It is, of course, still too early to say if Denmark’s move to ban trans fats has improved the health of the population.
Health statistics from the Denmark Ministry of Health do show that the rate of heart disease has fallen by 20 percent between 2001 (before the trans fats ban) and 2006 (two years after the trans fats ban).
Other countries that have restricted cigarette smoking and adopted other health measures have reported similar rates of improvement. So it is not likely that the reduction in heart disease is due to the trans fats ban.
However, it is worth taking note that in countries like Bulgaria and Hungary, which have made no effort to ban trans fats or otherwise curb their use, heart disease rates have continued to climb.
Obesity rates are still rising in Denmark, but the overall rate is still low – at 11 percent in 2005, compared with about 23 percent in Britain.
Support for trans fat ban
Danes seem to support the ban. A recent press report quoted one young Copenhagen resident saying: “I know trans fats are bad, but you don’t think about that when you’re hungry. It’s good that the Danish government got rid of trans fats so that I don’t have to worry about it.”
Not surprisingly, there were objections when Denmark originally proposed to ban trans fats.
Food companies claimed that a switch would difficult and troublesome, and they warned that the taste and texture of foods would suffer.
Meanwhile, other countries in the European Union felt that Denmak’s decision to ban trans fats amounts to unfair trade practices, as their foods could no longer be imported into Denmark.
Preserving the delicacy of traditional Danish pastries was a major concern at Copenhagen’s famed La Glace cafe, renowned for its pastries and cakes. When the trans fat law kicked in, its bakers began experimenting.
Initially, there were some problems as food producers experimented with trans fat free oils, Some foods tasted flat, some pastries became no longer flaky, french fries became limp, no longer crispy.
But these problems have since been solved and the food in Denmark is now said to be as good as it used to be.
Meanwhile, food producers and Denmark’s European neighbours have respected the country’s decision to ban trans fats, made the necessary modifications to their foods and stopped protesting.
One example is Nestle, the Swiss food giant. It treats the whole of Europe as one single market. So when Denmark decided to ban trans fats, Nestle had to change its food formulation for the whole of Europe, not just for Denmark.
Thus, all of Europe benefitted from lower levels of trans fats in Nestle products. In fact, all of the world benefitted. Even in Asian countries, where there is no strong movement to ban trans fats, Nestle has re-formulated its products to contain less trans fats.
Nestle benefitted as well. Today, it boasts of being a leader in eliminating trans fats from its products. It got press publicity for this, including a nearly full page article in Singapore’s TODAY newspaper some months ago. Its reputation got a boost.
Opponents to trans fats ban
Not everyone agrees with Denmark’s move to ban trans fats, of course.
Health Canada, the Canadian Ministry of Health, said it did not think a ban would work there. And Singapore’s Health Promotion Board has cited a long list of excuses not to ban trans fats – and not even to legislate trans fat labelling on nutrition facts labels.
Then there are those who argue that, rather than ban trans fats, governments should let consumers choose for themselves.
Such arguments may be valid if consumers are able to make informed choices. But without proper food labelling – when many consumers cannot read or cannot fully understand food labels and when food labels are often misleading – then consumer choice is a weak argument.
Its not like cigarette smoking, where the majority of smokers know that smoking is harmful, and yet choose to smoke.
In the case of trans fats, consumers often do know that trans fats are harmful and they do not even know that they are taking trans fats.
Moreover, trans fats are commonly – and abundantly – found in foods widely consumed by children and even by infants. They are not able to make wise, informed choices.
When New York City’s Department of Health voted unanimously to ban trans fats in December 2006, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “We’re not trying to take away anybody’s ability to go out and have the kind of food that they want in the quantities that they want, but we are trying to make that food safer.”
‘The world should ban trans fats’
Dr Steen Stender and other health experts say Denmark’s trans fat ban should be adopted worldwide.
“There’s no reason it cannot be done elsewhere,” Dr Stender said. “If you removed trans fat from the planet, the only people who would feel the difference are the people who sell the trans fat.”