If you have just a half to one teaspoon more trans fats than usual it will increase your risk of a heart attack by 50%.
After years of baking, cooking and greasing with "safe" margarine, we're now told most margarines in South African shops may present more of a risk to our health than butter and other animal fats.
Trans fats are found in most kinds of margarine and are just as dangerous or even more dangerous than saturated fats, which were for many years regarded as the major cause of heart attacks.
"Most people are completely unaware of the dangers lurking in hard margarine and commercial pastries. Unlike other countries South Africa has no legislation that protects consumers against this danger," says Dr Carl Albrecht, an independent medical research consultant, pharmacologist and biochemist.
Even a little can be dangerous
Researchers at Harvard University in America have proved that having just half to one teaspoon more trans fat than usual (one teaspoon instead of half a teaspoon a day) will increase your risk of having a heart attack by 50 per cent.
Their study was done on a group of 33 000 women over six years as part of the extensive Nurses' Health Study. The worrying part is that people who follow a typical Western diet eat almost twice as much trans fat a day as the women in the study and therefore run an even greater risk of having a heart attack. "This is a dangerous situation yet no one from our department of health is breathing a word about it.
"Government has been dragging its feet on legislation aimed at regulating the trans fat content of food since 2003 - and South Africans are being put at risk," Albrecht says.
Professor Spinnie Benadé, former director of the National Nutritional Research Institute of South Africa and an expert on oils and fats, is also concerned about the absence of legislation regulating trans fat content in South Africa. "There are guidelines but no regulations oblige producers to make changes for the sake of public health." Trans fats are man-made fats found not only in margarines but in nearly 40 per cent of all food.
Hard margarine, which is used in bakery- or factory-manufactured pastries and often also in baked goods from home industries, turn commercial cookies, rusks, crackers, pies, croissants, doughnuts, Danish pastries and some home-industry cakes into a serious health risk. A good general guideline: the harder the margarine, the more trans fats it contains. Some margarines may contain up to 15 per cent trans fats, compared with three per cent in butter.
The hard margarine used for commercially baked goods generally contains 10 times (up to 30 per cent) more trans fats than butter. If the packaging of cookies and other delicacies containing hard margarine doesn't indicate how much trans fat it contains, you may assume it is more than is good for your health, according to Dr Albrecht.
Developed with the best intentions
Ironically trans fats were developed with the best intentions. When research in the late '70s showed saturated animal fats might lead to high cholesterol and heart disease the food industry started looking at vegetable oils as a replacement for butter. But especially the good oils - such as canola and other oils that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids - quickly became rancid (a result of oxidation).
The industry started using hydrogenation, a chemical process by which hydrogen is bubbled through vegetable oils to increase their shelf life. It also changes them from a liquid to a solid state.
Thanks to hydrogenation oils can be heated over and over. It also improves the taste and texture of food and keeps it fresh for longer. Chips and croissants are crisper and creamy foods even creamier.
Trans fats were therefore regarded as ideal for baking and frying. That was until a number of big research studies in the '90s began to demonstrate that consuming trans fat involves serious health risks. Today we know it is an extremely dangerous food component - and the quickest way to a heart attack. Trans fats should not be used in food at all.
In most Western countries the bell began to toll for trans fats shortly after this discovery. In Australia trans fats have not been used in margarine since 1996. All Danish margarines, as well as foods such as microwave popcorn and baked goods, contain no trans fats. In America food manufacturers are required by law to indicate the trans fat content on labels of all food products.
Invisible in SA foods
In South Africa however trans fats in our foods are "invisible". According to Dr Albrecht and Professor Bernadé there is no legislation that compels food producers to indicate the contents of food products in general - and trans fats in particular - on food labels.
Health department spokesperson Charity Bengu said the proposed law on labelling food products, which will among other things regulate trans fat content, has been awaiting approval since 2003. She confirmed there is a little likelihood of the new regulations becoming law before June 2008.
As a result of the delay in legislation South Africans are being kept in the dark about the trans fats in the food they consume daily. Unilever and Woolworths are among the few manufacturers and traders who of their own accord indicate the percentage of trans fats in their products. Unilever has been manufacturing Flora, Rama and Stork margarines since 1994 without trans fats.
All baked goods sold in Woolworths shops contain the healthier red palm oil instead of fat which is rich in trans fats. An investigation confirmed the trans fat content of all Woolworths baked goods is indicated on the labels. Apart from these manufacturers, the Heart Mark (awarded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa) is all the public can rely on for guidance. The Heart mark is not awarded to foods which contain a lot of saturated and trans fats.
Shan Biesman-Simons, nutrition and education director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa, says, "We are concerned about the lack of legislation and guidelines regarding food and trans fat labelling. The Heart and Stroke Foundation encourages people to eat less fat, especially saturated and trans fats, and to eat a large variety of food from all food groups."
YOU Pulse did not find any indication of trans fat content labelling on the packaging of cookies, rusks, baked goods and house brand products sold in other food stores and supermarkets. This is also not required by the Department of Health.
According to food experts thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of ingesting too much trans fat.
How trans fats damage your health:
- Trans fats are even worse for your heart than animal fats. They increase your "bad" LDL cholesterol and decrease your "good" HDL cholesterol - something that even animal fats don't do. Trans fats cause inflammation and hardening of the arteries, which could cause high blood pressure. They increase the likelihood of blood clotting, lead to excess weight and cause more fat to accumulate around your organs.
- They play an important role in type 2 diabetes. If you replaced all trans fats in your diet with polyunsaturated fats, your risk of type 2 diabetes would decrease by 40 per cent.
- They increase your risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostate cancer.
- They may impair liver function.
- An increase in infertility in some women has been linked to increased consumption of trans fats.
Good and bad fats
Fats can be divided into two main categories:
1. The dangerous fats
These increase cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart attacks. They are:
- Saturated fats (mainly animal fats) found in red meat, butter, full-cream products, cream, stews, chicken skin and egg yolks. Some plant oils such as coconut and palm kernel oil also contain a lot of saturated fat.
- Trans fats found in hard margarine, cookies and other confectionery, doughnuts, commercial pies and dough.
2. The 'good' fats
These stabilise and decrease cholesterol levels, which may protect the heart arteries. They are:
- Mono-unsaturated fats found in avocados, olives and olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, palm oil and most nuts.
- Poly-unsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are found in salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, trout and tuna. Plant sources are linseed, canola, soy and palm oils, walnuts and some brands of soft margarine containing less than two per cent trans fats.
- Omega-6 fatty acids are also good but the average Westerner ingests so much through sunflower oil, mayonnaise and salad dressing that it cancels the advantages of omega-3 fatty acids. We need to consume more omega-3 fatty acids but a Western diet contains between 18 and 25 times more of the sixes than the threes. Don't even consider omega-6 supplements - use supplements that contain only omega-3 fats, Professor Bernadé says.
Don't consume more than 60 to 80g fat a day if you want to keep your heart healthy and your weight within acceptable limits. This includes hidden fats in food. Of these, no more than a third should be saturated fats, a third should be mono-unsaturated fats and a third omega-3 fatty acids.
What to eat, what to avoid
Yes to butter or margarine indicating it contains less than 2% trans fats (also indicated as 2g of trans fats per 100g).
Avoid bricks of hard margarine and be careful about soft margarine without labelling, which may indicate the presence of trans fats.
Yes to cold-pressed virgin olive oil; canola oil; sunflower oil; a blend of sunflower, canola and soy oils; palm oil.
Avoid oil that is partially hydrogenated and olive oil marked "100% pure olive oil".
3. Baked goods
Yes to baked goods made with butter or margarine containing less than 2% trans fats.
No to packets of commercial cookies, rusks or chocolate without trans fat labelling or where neither palm oil nor safe margarine was used. Avoid microwave popcorn - rather choose popcorn popped using a good vegetable oil.
4. For deep-frying
Use only fresh, clean vegetable oil. Palm oil and canola oil are best.
Avoid all food fried in partially hydrogenated oil. Any oil that has been used over and over may contain carcinogenic acrylamide.
Move on if the manager cannot assure you that palm oil or other safe oils, and not partially hydrogenated oils, are used in the preparation of their food.
The percentage of trans fats in various foods
- 1 teaspoon baked goods: 4g (30%) trans fats
- 1 tablespoon hard margarine: 3g (27%) trans fats
- 1 commercial doughnut: 5g (27%) trans fats
- 3 (30g) commercial cookies: 2g (6%) trans fats
- 1 slice (80g) commercial cake: 4,5g (5,6%) trans fats
- 1 tablespoon soft margarine: 3g (27%) trans fats
(Source: Food and Drug Administration)
(This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in YOU Pulse magazine, 2007)