Millions of Europeans are still at increased risk of heart disease due to consumption of artificial trans fatty acids, according to a new pan-European review published in BMJ Open.
The study, carried out by Danish researchers from Copenhagen University Hospital and the University of Copenhagen, found that although artificial trans fat content of many foods declined significantly from 2005 to 2009, it was still possible to consume a diet relatively high in trans fats, particularly in Eastern Europe, as few countries had imposed legal limits on trans fat content.
“Millions of people in the EU still consume I-TFA [industrial trans fatty acids] in amounts that substantially increase their risk of coronary heart disease,” they wrote.
Trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is useful for food manufacturers because it is low-cost, shelf-stable, and can withstand high temperatures during processing. However, research over the past decade has linked high levels of dietary trans fat with increased risk of heart disease, as it increases levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein, or ‘bad’) cholesterol, while also decreasing levels of HDL (high density lipoprotein, or ‘good’) cholesterol in the blood.
The researchers pointed out that although mean trans fat consumption across a population may be low, “a low-average intake at the population level does not preclude a very high intake among some subgroups.”
The researchers analysed samples of foods including French fries, chicken nuggets, microwave popcorn, and samples of biscuits, cakes and wafers with ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable fat’ listed high on the list of ingredients, and designed a ‘high-trans menu’, defined as a large serving of French fries and nuggets, 100 g of microwave popcorn and 100 g of biscuits/wafers/cakes.
They found that in 2009, Eastern Europeans in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were still consuming 10-20 g of trans fat in a high-trans menu – although this was an improvement from more than 30 g in 2005. For Western Europeans in Germany, France and the UK, the same menu provided less than 2 g of trans fat in 2009, down from 20-30 g four years earlier.
The World Health Organisation recommends that trans fat should account for less than 1% of total calories.
The researchers wrote that in 2009, only two EU countries – Austria and Denmark – protected their populations from excessive trans fat consumption with specific legislation. All others relied on food producers to voluntarily reduce trans fat in their foods.
Source: BMJ Open
“A trans European Union difference in the decline intrans fatty acids in popular foods: a market basket investigation”
Authors: Steen Stender, Arne Astrup, Jørn Dyerberg