– making trans fats history
STEEN STENDER made trans fats history.
As Chairman of the Danish Nutrition Council’s subgroup dealing with trans fats and health, he lobbied for – and successfully achieved – a ban on trans fats in Denmark.
Denmark approved the ban in March 2003 and it came into effect on 1 January 2004.
The ban made it illegal for any food to contain more than 2 percent trans fats. Offenders face hefty fines and could even be jailed.
As of January 2007, Denmark remains the only country in the world to have banned foods with more than 2 percent trans fats content.
Steen Stender is Professor, Chief physician and Lab Director at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Copenhagen County Hospital in Gentofte, University of Copenhagen.
He graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Copenhagen in 1973 and embarked on a research career that spanned more than 30 years. Steen Stender has published more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles in international journals, mostly focused around the biochemistry of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
A major achievement has been the development of a method for measuring the in vivo transfer of various types of lipoproteins from the blood into the arterial wall of humans.
Stender has been a member of the Danish Nutrition Council since the early-1990s, and the chairman of several sub-groups, including the sub-group dealing with trans fatty acids and health.
Danish Nutrition Council report on trans fats
In 1994, the Danish Nutrition Council (today called the Danish Fitness and Nutrition Council) published a report, The influence of trans fatty acids on health.
The report concluded that trans fats acids in the diet promoted arteriosclerosis at least as much as equivalent amounts of saturated fats and probably more.
|The 1994 Danish Nutrition Council Report also said there were “justified suspicions that a high trans fatty acid intake may have adverse effects on foetal growth.”|
The Danish Nutrition Council thus recommended that the European Union should require the levels of trans fats to be declared on food labels.
At the same time, it concluded an agreement with the country’s margarine industry to reduce the trans fat content of margarine.
Here, Steen Stender noted a major difference between Denmark, where food manufacturers were cooperative, versus the US, where the food industry exerted strong pressure to prevent any curbs on the use of trans fats.
In 1994, the average daily intake of industrially produced trans fats in Denmark (versus naturally occurring trans fats that are not harmful) was about 2.5 grams per person per day. For about 150,000 Danes who consumed large amounts of fried foods, pastries, etc, the average daily consumption was more than 5 grams.
After margarine manufacturers reduced trans fats in their products, the national average consumption level dropped to 1 – 2 grams per day. However, Steen Stender and the Danish Nutrition Council were not satisfied that the reduction was good enough to bring about positive changes to the health of the nation.
Moreover, Steen Stender noted that imported foods, as well as baked products, continued to have high levels of trans fats.
So in March 2003, the government of Denmark announced a ban on all foods containing more than 2 percent trans fats by 1 January 2004.
In September 2005, the Danish Nutrition Council organised The First International Symposium on Trans Fatty Acids and Health in Rungstedgaard.
The symposium attracted over 100 participants. More than 20 highly esteemed scientists presented papers on the trans fat situation and a similar number of posters were presented by scientists as well.
One ‘good thing’ about trans fats
Steen Stender’s experience with banning trans fats in Denmark has made him realise “one good thing” about trans fats – they can be easily removed.
Naturally, the ban was met with some initial resistance – from the food industry as well as from other European Union countries, who felt that it was a form of trade protectionism as their foods could no longer be imported into Denmark.
And, some pastry shops at first had difficulty maintaining the taste and texture of their products after switching to trans fat free oils.
But these problems were solved soon enough. According to a press report in October 2006, nearly 3 years after the ban came into effect:
“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. Steen Stender conducted a study in 2006 and found that the content of trans fat varied dramatically among different countries.
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.
However, differences in trans fat levels were not only due to the ban on Denmark. Steen Stender and his research team analysed the trans fat content from fast food restaurants in 43 servings of fast foods bought in 20 counties between November 2004 and September 2005.
In April 2006, Steen Stender reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that his team found “remarkably wide variations in trans fat content” from country to country, from city to city within the same nation, and from restaurant to restaurant in the same city.
The trans fat content for a meal of french fries and chicken nuggets was about 3 grams in Spain, Russia and the Czech Republic.
At KFCs in Poland and Hungary, a large hot wings-and-fries order had 19 grams of trans fats or more, versus 5.5 grams for wings and fried potato wedges in New York. In Germany, Russia, Denmark and Aberdeen, Scotland, the same meal had less than 1 gram of trans fat.
Steen Stender said: “I was very surprised to see a difference in trans fatty acids in these uniform products. It’s such an easy risk factor to remove.”
Trans fat labelling is ‘wrong approach’
Since trans fats are so easy to remove from the food chain, Steen Stender feels that trans fat labelling is the wrong approach.
Steen Stender said: “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”
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.“