Food facts and definitions: Trans fatty acids

Trans fatty acids (TFAs), occur both naturally and in manufactured products. Naturally occurring TFAs are found in some animal products including butter, cheese and meat. Manufactured TFAs (also known as artificial TFAs) are formed when liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated or ‘hardened’ during industrial processing to create spreads such as margarine, cooking fats for deep-frying and shortening for baking. Some TFAs are also formed during high temperature cooking.

Are trans fatty acids harmful?

There is compelling evidence that TFAs increase the amount of bad cholesterol in our blood, a key indicator for heart disease. Also, TFAs may decrease the levels of good cholesterol.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that we eat no more than 1 per cent of our daily kilojoules from TFAs.

How many TFAs do we consume?

Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) dietary modelling has found that Australians obtain on average 0.5 per cent of their daily kilojoules from TFAs and New Zealanders on average 0.6 per cent. This is well below the WHO recommendation. It is also below the levels in many other countries. 

In Australia and New Zealand, naturally occurring TFAs that come from animal products contribute around 60 to 75 per cent of TFA intake.

Are TFAs identified on food labels?

It is not mandatory to declare TFAs on the label, although manufacturers can provide this information voluntarily. However, TFAs must be declared on a food label if the manufacturer makes a nutrition claim about cholesterol or saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, omega-3, omega-6 or omega-9 fatty acids.

What can I do to reduce harmful fat in my diet?

While we are consuming levels of TFAs well below the WHO recommendation, we are still getting around 14 to 16 per cent of our daily kilojoules from trans fats and saturated fats combined , which is well above the Australian and New Zealand recommendations that these fats contribute no more than 8 to 10 per cent of our daily kilojoules. This is due to our high intakes of saturated fats.

You can check how much saturated fat is in food by looking at the nutrition information panel on food labels.

You can reduce your fat intakes by following healthy eating guidelines.

Are trans fatty acids banned overseas?

No. The few countries reported as banning TFAs have, in fact, set upper limits. For example, in 2003, the Danish Nutrition Council recommended restrictions on, and phasing out of, manufactured TFAs in foods. However, if the TFA content in the finished food is less than 1 gram per 100 grams of the individual oil or fat, the Danes consider the food free of TFAs.

In California and New York there is an upper limit of 0.5 grams of TFAs per standard serve of a packaged food or a restaurant meal. So eating three serves a day, for example, of meat, chips or desserts, could put you well over the already low levels of TFAs consumed in Australia.

What have the Australian and New Zealand governments done to reduce TFAs in food?

Our governments established the Australia New Zealand Collaboration on Trans Fats in 2007. It included representatives from the National Heart Foundation of Australia, the National Heart Foundation of New Zealand, the Dietitians Association of Australia, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) and FSANZ. 

The primary aim of this group was to work to reduce the amount of TFAs in the New Zealand and Australian food supply, without increasing the amount of saturated fat. The group also promoted industry and public health initiatives for reducing the levels of TFAs and increasing consumer awareness and understanding.

In addition to the Collaboration, a Roundtable on Trans Fats in the Quick Service Restaurant industry was established with the aim of minimising the use of TFAs in quick service meals.

FSANZ also conducted a formal scientific review of TFAs in the food supply and reported back to the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council in May 2007. The report found that the contributions of TFAs to energy intakes of Australians and New Zealanders was below the goal of 1 per cent proposed by the WHO, and comparable to, or lower than, intake estimates from other countries.

Ministers endorsed the findings of the scientific review that new laws were not required and that non-regulatory measures to further reduce the levels of TFAs in the Australian and New Zealand food supply would be appropriate. Ministers noted that regular updates on progress in reducing TFAs would be provided on the work being carried out by the Australia New Zealand Collaboration on Trans Fats.

In 2009 FSANZ reviewed the outcome of non-regulatory measures to reduce TFAs in the food supply. The 2009 review found that intakes of TFAs from manufactured sources decreased in Australia and New Zealand by around 25 to 45 percent since 2007, reflecting changes in industry practice to reduce TFA levels in manufactured foods. This decline is equivalent to around 0.1% of energy. 

As a result of these findings, in October 2009, the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council agreed that the non-regulatory approach should continue.

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