On Sept. 17, Canada made a leap in ameliorating the health of Canadians across the country by officially adding artificial trans fats to the List of Contaminants and other Adulterating Substances in Foods.
Trans fats are usually created by adding hydrogen molecules to liquid vegetable oils, turning them into a semi-solid state. This process is known as partial hydrogenation. The resulting trans fats can increase the shelf life of many foods while adding taste and texture.
Although they are commercially-viable for use in the food industry—particularly in the production of baked goods, margarine, and shortening—trans fats have been linked to chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. According to Adriana de la Parra Sólomon, a MSc candidate in Human Nutrition at McGill, although trans fats should only make up a small percentage of our diets, their commercial production has greatly increased our intake past its natural limit.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, annually, trans-fats lead to 500,000 deaths globally due to their role in cardiovascular disease.
“The problem with trans fats is that they make food more palatable, sometimes a little too [palatable], which may drive over-consumption,” André Portella, a postdoctoral fellow in Nutrition and Neuroscience said. “In this particular situation, we have a deadly combination [of] overconsumption of an unhealthy component [in the over-consumed food].”
While prohibiting artificial trans fats in Canadian products is a positive improvement for the health sector, enacting the ban is not a novel idea. The Task Force on Trans Fat recommended that the Government of Canada enact laws to protect Canadians from trans fat health risks back in 2006. Meanwhile, Denmark became the first state to ban trans fats in 2003, with the list growing steadily to include countries such as Switzerland, the United States, and Thailand.
Portella believes a complex array of factors may have influenced the slow acceptance of the ban in Canada.
“[There was likely] a fear of imposing such a strong restriction,” Portella said. “Science is not something [that is] easy to digest. There is a lot of contradictory evidence […] even for the most certain knowledge [….] Another possibility is [… that] pressure from economic sectors that have something to lose with the ban.”
Nonetheless, although there is a two-year grace period and naturally occuring trans fats, such as those found in meat and dairy products in small traces, are still permitted, Canada is ahead of most countries in trans fat regulations, joining fewer than a dozen others.
Industries will keep looking elsewhere to find a replacement for trans fats, but that does not necessarily mean that the ban was a bad idea.
“There is no downside to eliminating trans fats,” Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill Office for Science and Society states and author of ‘Stoned on Food,’ said. “Although replacements like coconut oil may not exactly be ‘healthy’, they are certainly not worse than the partially-hydrogenated fats.”
The increase in trans fat bans is due in part due to the release of a step-by-step guide by the World Health Organization (WHO), which explains how to eliminate them from the global food supply. This action has motivated Canada to take on the pressing issue of trans fat regulation and show the world that they are ready to move forward with protecting their citizens’ health.