Some Terrifying Trans Fatty Facts
The 20th century saw big changes in human food supplies. The most dangerous ingredient which was added to food for the first time in human history was industrially produced trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils. These were introduced during the early twentieth century, and by the 1980s consumption of partially hydrogenated oils with trans fats grew to a sizable 8% of all calories consumed by Americans. It was widely used in cookies, crackers, chips, margarines and shortenings as well as fried, frozen and baked goods.
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In India, there were large quantities of trans fats in the form of Vanaspati, which was a cheap substitute for butter and ghee. A large number of bakery items, street food and other eatables in the market were made from partially hydrogenated fats, which also comprised large component of trans fats. A survey of street food in India at Delhi and Haryana found that 25% of snack foods had levels of trans fatty acids exceeding the legal limit set by Denmark, which was the first country in the world to restrict trans fatty acids in 2004.
Studies had shown way back in the 1960s that trans fats accumulated in the fat tissue supplanting normal fatty acids in all of the body’s cells. This way, trans fatty acids acted like foreign agents, who do not operate according to normal plans. It was also shown by studies that unnatural fatty acids in the cell have a negative effect on calcification. Elevated levels of calcium in blood vessels are closely associated with heart disease.
In 1977, Randall Wood made an important discovery that hydrogenating an oil while producing trans fats removes naturally occurring fatty acids from the oil, and replacing them with a large number of unnatural ones which could be worse than the trans fats. In 1978, Mary G Enig, a nutritional biochemist published a paper documenting correlation between trans fats consumption and cancer rates. The establishment, particularly the food industry was so powerful in the USA that any scientist coming out with anything against trans fats was banished from the research and no aspect adverse to these could be brought out in the open.
Because of the stranglehold of the industry on research, no worthwhile finding could come against trans fats in the USA and whatever little could be done in the form of individual efforts was effectively suppressed. The beginning of the end of trans fats came from Holland where Martijn Katan, a molecular biologist and nutrition Professor at Wageningen University with his student Ronald Mensink in 1991, found that the diet high in trans fats not only raised LDL cholesterol compared to olive oil, but also lowered HDL cholesterol. In 1993, Walter Willet, a Harvard University nutrition Professor announced that trans fats killed 30,000 persons annually in the USA.
While the World Health Organisation wants the world to be free of trans fats by 2023, India plans to be a zero fat nation by 2022, a year earlier than the timeline of WHO. While this is
commendable determination by the Government of India and WHO to eliminate trans fats from human food supply, we should not wait for eliminating trans fats from our food immediately.
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With some knowledge of nutrition, we in our family have totally banned trans fats in our lives for more than a year. We do not touch anything which even remotely contains trans fats. All of us can contribute to the efforts of the Government and the World body by consciously eliminating any food which contains trans fats. We must not buy any partially hydrogenated oil for use at our homes and by being careful that we do not buy or consume anything outside our homes, which are made from partially hydrogenated oils. This will definitely require avoiding temptations when in face to face with cakes, pastries, sweets or other street food, which could have trans fats. For this we have to make efforts to find out the ingredients of food items we consume and if ingredients are not displayed or cannot be ascertained we shun the products totally, however tempting the product could be in appearance.
We have to take charge of our health and we must ensure that we will not have anything which has trans fats, the most dangerous ingredient in the food chain.
We have to be conscious that according to the World Health Organisation trans fats caused more than 5,00,000 deaths in 2010 and we have to consciously aid this effort by totally eliminating trans fats from our diets.
(The author, an IPS Officer of 1987 batch, is presently Joint Secretary with Ministry of Home Affairs)