What are trans fats and why are there calls to ban them in the UAE?

As the government was urged to bring forward a 2023 ban on the substance, we look at one of the worst things you can eat

Many of those surveyed said they were eating more meals than they used to. Getty
Many of those surveyed said they were eating more meals than they used to. Getty

The UAE needs to wage war on trans fats to cut the country's high rate of strokes and heart attacks, a Federal National Council member said.

Dherar Al Falasi, representing Dubai, urged the government to bring forward a 2023 deadline to phase out the ingredient from cooking and packaged foods.

He said the country faced a public health ticking time bomb unless a ban was enforced immediately.

The UAE needs to ban trans-fats now. Shock tactics are the only way

Dherar Al Falasi, FNC

Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, pledged to consider the request.

Sobering statistics from the World Health Organisation show about half a million global deaths each year are attributed to the intake of industrially produced trans fats.

A common ingredient found in oils and fried or pre-packaged foods, high consumption of these harmful fats increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 21 per cent and coronary heart disease deaths by 28 per cent.

“Are these numbers not shocking enough? Trans fats are toxic, they are killing us,” Mr Al Falasi told The National.

“The UAE needs to ban trans fats now, then work on spreading awareness. Shock tactics is the only way.

“The longer we pay lip service to the idea of change, the more damage it will cause to peoples’ health.

“Why give it another three years for preventable diseases and death rates to grow? We need to exercise some serious damage control right now.

“If we wait, it will weigh heavily on the health of our residents and citizens and become an even bigger burden.”

What is trans fat?

Certain meat and dairy products contain a small amount of natural trans fat, but most artificial trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to ingredients such as vegetable oil, margarine and some types of ghee. This process turns liquid oils into solid fats.

It is common practice in the food industry as it helps to extend the shelf life of products.

In food labelling, fats altered by this chemically induced process are often referred to as "partially hydrogenated".

Manufactured trans fats are commonly found in cooking oils, baked goods such as cakes and cookies, snacks such as crisps and popcorn, and fried food such as chips and doughnuts.

While some fats are a major source of energy and help us to absorb vitamins and minerals, industrially made trans fats are the worst kind.

Too much of this fat in your diet increases your risk for heart disease and other health problems, including diabetes and obesity.

The WHO recommends limiting your total intake to less than 1 per cent of your total energy absorption per day. That translates to less than 2.2 grams per day – or half a teaspoon - on a 2,000-calorie diet.

But in 2018, the health agency issued a global call to eliminate trans fats within five years to “protect health and save lives”.

Many countries have already taken strict action against the use of trans fats in foods.

Dherar Al Falasi, FNC member, wants to fast-track UAE's ban on trans fats. Courtesy Dherar Belhoul Al Falasi
Dherar Al Falasi, FNC member, wants to fast-track UAE's ban on trans-fats. Courtesy Dherar Belhoul Al Falasi

In 2004, Denmark became the first country in the world to regulate the content of artificial trans fats in certain food products. More than 15 years on, the move has nearly eliminated artificial trans fats from the country’s food supply. It has also resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease.

In 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration ruled that artificial trans fats were no longer "generally recognised as safe" for use in food. Today, no food prepared in the US is allowed to include trans fats, unless approved by the FDA.

Last month, the Saudi Food and Drug Authority introduced regulations to ban the use of partially hydrogenated oils in the food industry.

Trans fats a health burden on UAE

In the UAE, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure or heart disease are found in people at an average of 10 to 20 years younger than in western countries. A lack of exercise and poor diet are major factors contributing to this trend.

“Trans fats increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke and type 2 diabetes by lowering what is known as good cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, and increasing bad cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein,” Dr Anwar Sallam, group chief medical officer at Abu Dhabi Health Services Company said.

“LDL allows cholesterol to build up in the walls of the arteries, making them narrow and restricting blood flow.”

If the fatty deposits within the arteries tear or rupture, he said it could cause a blood clot and block flow to your heart, causing a heart attack.

The latest statistics from the Ministry of Health and Prevention show about 36 per cent of all deaths in the UAE are caused by cardiovascular disease.

“In terms of premature death, or death that occurs before the average age of death, ischemic heart disease and stroke were recognised as the second and third leading causes of mortality respectively,” Dr Sallam said.

Foods that contain trans fats
Foods that contain trans fats

“While trans fat may not be the only contributing factor, it is still a primary one that can and should be eliminated."

Since a high intake of fatty acids increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, Dr Sallam said “lessening access to them globally” will inevitably reduce the number of deaths resulting from these illnesses.

“If Denmark can do it, so can the world. It is the responsibility of each country’s leadership to implement mandatory change to lessen the worldwide impact of trans fats," he said.

To help governments reach the 2023 elimination target, WHO released a step-by-step guide called Replace.

The guide includes advice on how to develop suitable regulations, as well as how to update legal frameworks.

Supporting the idea of banning trans fats before the 2023 deadline, Archana Baju, clinical dietitian at Burjeel Hospital in Dubai, said it would dramatically decrease cases of many lifestyle diseases.

“Enforcing regulations to limit or ban the use of industrial made fats in restaurants and food products would naturally encourage the use of alternative, healthier options,” she said.

“The processed food industry has an important role to play here and strict control measures need to be taken against them.”

Kimi Sokhi, a regional corporate well-being manager and nutrition specialist for ICAS MENA, an employee well-being solutions provider, said tighter legislation on trans fat would encourage people to lead healthier lifestyles.

“People just need to turn to whatever exists in nature. Things like avocado oil, coconut oil. Anything that is not man-made is fine,” she said.

“It will require a total mind shift but it is for the greater good. A lot of these simple switches wouldn’t dramatically alter the taste of food either."

But she said it is important that people do not blur the lines between good and bad fats.

"Not all fats are bad...the concern with trans fats is that they are chemically changed in a manufacturing lab and that is what makes it hard for the body to process.

“Forcing manufacturers to take ownership of what they are putting into their produce is the need of the hour and long overdue. ”

Campaigning for better food safety laws in India, Dushyant Krishnan, a lawyer, set up foodnetindia to help educate people on how to make informed choices about what they put in their bodies.

He told The National that while governments continued to delay their reaction to the WHO’s call for a ban on trans fats, consumers needed to become more vigilant.

“Read ingredient lists and nutrition labels before buying them,” he said.

“If you read the word ‘hydrogenated’, alarm bells should ring.

“While eating out, don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant or vendor whether they cook with stuff like margarine, which contains huge amounts of trans fat.”

He said governments “must prioritise” banning these harmful fats sooner rather than later as they conflicted with many food laws.

“We are simply exercising our human right to safe, adequate and nutritious food," he said.

Updated: March 2, 2020 12:26 PM


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