The trap of trans fats

The Indian population is genetically predisposed to cardiovascular diseases. Consumption of 'vanaspati' compounds this risk

Sujata Kelkar Shetty
Updated9 May 2016
There is no way of verifying the presence of trans fats in street food items. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint<br />
There is no way of verifying the presence of trans fats in street food items. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The US food and drug administration (FDA) issued a press release in June stating that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of trans fats, are “not generally recognized as safe” for human consumption. The federal agency gave food manufacturers in the US three years to completely remove PHOs from their products.

Trans fats are noxious for heart health and this single action by the FDA is likely to reduce both the incidence of heart disease and the number of heart attacks by the thousands in the US.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), however, is yet to issue any directive on this issue.

The reason trans fats have been used traditionally by the food industry in India and abroad is because they increase taste, add texture, increase the shelf life of regular food products and reduce the cost of production. Medical research, however, shows that consuming trans fats significantly increase the risk of heart disease.

A review of the medical literature, titled Health Effects Of Trans-fatty Acids: Experimental And Observational Evidence, on the effects of trans fats on heart health—published in the European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition in 2009—found that “among dietary fats, trans fats leave a unique cardio-metabolic imprint”, contributing significantly to an increased risk of heart disease. The review by cardiologist D. Mozaffarian and his colleagues shows that trans fats produce the cardio-toxic effect in a number of ways: They increase the blood levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides, while reducing blood levels of HDL (good cholesterol). Trans fats also increase the amount of C-reactive protein in the blood, increasing the inflammation of the arteries while interfering with the proper functioning of the immune system.

Ram Rajasekharan, director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysuru, says in an email interview: “The Indian population is already identified as genetically predisposed to cardiovascular diseases. In addition, epidemiological data points to greater risk of coronary heart disease from an increase in dietary trans fats. Hence, consumption of
vanaspati (a source of trans fats) compounds the risk of cardiovascular diseases in the Indian population.”

Trans fats are found in many popular foods, including cakes, biscuits, cookies, potato chips, French fries and fried food. In the US, food manufacturers are required to state the amount of trans fat in their food product if the level exceeds 0.5mg per serving—as prescribed by the FDA. This isn’t required of the Indian food manufacturer.

Only one Indian brand, a bakery, issued a press release in 2009 saying that it was removing trans fats from its baked products. And though an industry source says that more branded Indian food manufacturers are following suit, the only way of knowing that a processed food product doesn’t have trans fats, or has minimal trans fats, is when the manufacturer voluntarily puts such information on the label.

In India, the uncertainty is even greater in street food. One can at least find out if trans fats are being used or not in labelled products, but there is no way to verify its presence in the food that one eats outside.

While there is no question that trans fats are best avoided, one also needs to understand that dietary fats are important for good health. Dietary fats are a major source of energy for the body, keep us feeling full longer and aid in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. So choose to cook and bake with liquid oils like canola and olive (that are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids) while using sources of saturated fat like ghee and butter sparingly, and eliminate vanaspati from your diet.

The good news is that the Indian government, too, is moving to mandate a reduction. “In 2015, the FSSAI had issued a notification to reduce the maximum permitted amount of trans fats to 5% in hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine and fat spreads and interesterified vegetable fat. This regulation will be effective on and from 27 August this year,” says Rajasekharan.

In other words, the amount of trans fats in PHOs will soon be reduced by the Indian oil industry.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness expert and a certified life coach. She has formerly worked as a clinical scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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