Artificial trans fats are caused when oils and fats are processed. Photo: Reuters
Australian experts are calling for a ban on harmful "trans fats" after US authorities announced the artificial fats, which are found in some fried and processed foods, would be phased out.
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Michael Moore said there was no reason Australians should still be subjected to the fats, which increase levels of bad cholesterol in the blood.
"Trans fats have not been as big a problem in Australia as the US, as the industry moved reasonably quickly to withdraw them," he said. "But from our perspective that's even more reason to move to ban them, to stop those [companies] that haven't done the right thing".
However, he noted that Australians concerned about their health should be more worried about their total saturated fat consumption damaging their heart health, and their overall fat and sugar consumption causing them to become overweight.
Artificial trans fats are caused when oils and fats are processed, changing their chemical composition. While they occur naturally in some meat and dairy, most of what is found in processed food are vegetable oils treated with hydrogen to improve texture, extend shelf life and stabilise flavours.
The US Food and Drug Administration has announced that trans fats “are not generally recognised as safe for use in food” and that food producers should not be able to use them without permission.
If formally adopted after a short consultation period, the move would mean that food providers can no longer sell foods with "partially hydrogenated oils" that contain trans fats without FDA approval.
"We will almost certainly continue in that direction," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters on a conference call. Nothing is final, though "we are on a clear track".
Heart Foundation national director of cardiovascular health Rob Grenfell said the foundation had long called for mandatory labelling of trans fats.
“Mandatory labelling would be the first step and would be the easiest action to take at this stage,” he said.
“We believe consumers should be aware of what they are eating and this transparency will help push manufacturers to change to healthier oils and manufacturing processes.”
Dr Grenfell said all trans fats could not be banned, as naturally occurring ones, which were no different to the artificial ones, were commonly found in some meats and dairy, such as butter.
He said many consumers mistakenly believed that all margarine in Australia contained trans fats.
“Food processing [in Australia] is different to that currently used in the US – for example, Australian margarines with the Heart Foundation Tick contain a maximum of 1 per cent trans fat, and most contain only 0.1 or 0.2 per cent,” he said.
The FDA has never before made a safety determination on most forms of partially hydrogenated oil used in foods. The initial costs of removing the ingredient from the food supply would be about $US8 billion ($8.46 billion), though that cost could be spread out over multiple years, the FDA said.
About half the trans fats consumed in the US are formed during food processing and partially hydrogenated oils are the main source, the FDA said. Eliminating partially hydrogenated oils may prevent as many as 7000 coronary deaths a year, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.