The great trans fats debate: Storm in a teacup or more serious than that?


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If you are involved with fast food essentially this means all of us, either as manufacturers or consumers you will have heard about trans fats by now. They are debated just about everywhere you look, and switching off when the topic comes up is no longer advisable. This article tells you what it is all about.

Trans fats, more correctly described as trans-fatty acids, are found in partially hydrogenated oils. They are produced in an industrial process when the food processors harden fat to make it more similar to butter, give it longer shelf life and make it easier to use. Trans fats give potato chips their crunch and are widely used in the preparation of other foodstuffs, for example, burgers, chicken, doughnuts and biscuits. Even seemingly innocuous foods like breakfast cereals and breads may contain them.

Their detractors describe trans fats as a form of plastic our digestive system is unable to process. As a result, they clog arteries and cause heart problems, strokes and diabetes. And if this doesn’t put you off them, keep in mind that they are also responsible for increased levels of cholesterol and make you gain weight.

Trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are toxins that do not belong in food says Dr Walter Willett, chairman of the Harvard School of Public Healths Department of Nutrition.
Strictly speaking, the use of oils containing trans fats is not necessary. Alternatives are available, and they aren’t even more expensive. Only problem is, they have a shorter shelf life, but work undertaken by food technologists indicates that this can be overcome.

Those in the know classify trans fats as silent killersØ because they are odourless, tasteless and virtually invisible. Currently, most food manufacturers use them but very few bother to warn of the dangers they pose. In fairness, we have to admit that trans fats were long considered to be harmless. Only about a decade or so ago did scientists begin to discover the devastation they wreak on the human body, and started looking for alternatives.

Once the harmful impact of trans fats had been discovered, pressure groups didnt take long to respond. As a result, a municipality in California banned their use in all restaurants and New York is in the process of doing so.

In fairness, it must be said that the much-maligned fast food industry was among the first to seek alternatives. KFC in the US have started to switch to oils free of trans fats last year, and MacDonalds are experimenting with replacements since 2002. Wendys and Dunkin Doughnuts are moving in the right direction. Apparently, they have now found a product that does not contain trans fats yet enables them to keep their customers taste buds happy. After serving millions of portions, as far as we can tell, our customers don’t notice the differenceØ a spokesman for Wendys said, the move was cost-neutral to us we pay the same for our oils as before.

South Africa appears to be lagging behind somewhat, although spokespeople for the main players in the food sector have signalled awareness. They stress that they are working with their suppliers to develop healthier alternatives. Maintaining taste is a key concern. They all agree that as soon as this hurdle has been overcome, they will phase out the use of trans fats altogether.
Meanwhile in the US, the City of New Yorks Health Department, which was about to introduce a total ban on the use of trans fats in its 24 000 restaurants, has been taken to court. The sponsors of this move are not against the ban per se but argue that the six months period proposed for the switch-over is insufficient. They reason that because these fats have been used for so long, manufacturers are geared up to supply them and an enforced total switch would lead to shortages. In other words, they agree that the use of trans fats needs to be phased out but want more time to adapt.

This is probably a fair request but in the interim, better labelling would be nice. It would not make the use of trans fats any healthier but it would allow consumers to make an informed decision about what, and how much of it, they eat.

Readers wishing to find out more about this topic are welcome to contact expert@whichfranchise.co.za to request a list of relevant websites and other resources.

 

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