Artificial fats are bad for you
People sometimes accuse the health food industry of scaremongering but they are rank amateurs compared to the slick, professional and well-organised tropical fats campaign that created national panic in the US in the 1980s. With full-page newspaper ads screaming “Stop the Poisoning of America”, the orchestrated campaign blamed palm and coconut oil for America’s heart disease epidemic. Within months every major American product had ‘no tropical fats’ on the front of the label and ‘hydrogenated fat’ on the ingredients list where natural fat had been. The American Soybean Association was pleased as punch – soya oil is the raw material for hydrogenated fat.
In Britain in the 80s health authorities and hospital dieticians encouraged people to give up butter and switch to high-polyunsaturate margarines. But to have high polyunsaturate levels you need high levels of hydrogenated fat. As a result there are millions of Britons who have heart disease (they’re the lucky ones, the rest are dead) because they followed this well-meaning but misguided advice.
So why do manufacturers use hydrogenated fat? If you’ve ever seen it you’d understand. It comes as fine sand-like granules that won’t melt when you hold them in your hand, but do melt at food processing temperatures. They set hard while a food product is still warm, giving structure and texture to foods as diverse as bread, biscuits, margarine and cakes. They provide a plasticky scaffolding that holds together other food ingredients, enabling more air and water to be added to a food.
In 1993 Whole Earth Superspread was launched and our ad prompted a complaint from the makers of Flora to the Advertising Standards Authority because we said hydrogenated fat was bad for you. While we argued and appealed the hydrogenated fat content of Flora fell from 21% right down to less than 1%.
The Interheart survey, described in 2004 by The Lancet as the most comprehensive and rigorous study ever of research into heart disease, concluded that salt, stress, dietary fat, sugar etc were all minor causes of heart disease. The two major ones, responsible for 80% of all heart disease, were smoking and an imbalance between Low Density Lipid and High Density Lipid cholesterol (the ratio should be 2:1). The issue is not how much cholesterol you have (the argument that has put millions onto anti-cholesterol drugs) but solely what the ratio is. Hydrogenated fat slows down the loss of LDL and accelerates the loss of healthy HDL cholesterol, so the ratio swings out to 3:1 or 4:1, where the LDL starts to clog up the arteries. The HDL cholesterol is slippery and lubricates the circulatory system. There are also links between hydrogenated fat consumption and obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer disease. Transfats (another name for hydrogenated fats) interfere with Omega 3 metabolism, underpinning the market for fish oil to rectify the deficiency.
The track record of the health food trade is unedifying. Many vegetarian and vegan products have historically depended on hydrogenated fat. Vegetarian and vegan margarines relied heavily on it. Hydrogenated fat is now rare in a health food shop. It has always been illegal in organic products.
Forget about government doing anything about transfats. It subsidises rapeseed and soya – the oils that are usually hydrogenated – to make them cheaper than natural fats. In the US the battle was finally won when a lawyer called Stephen Joseph sued McDonalds in 2003 for reneging on their promise to reduce transfats and was awarded an $8.5 million settlement. In the US transfats now have to be labelled on the nutrition information panels. Manufacturers are scrambling to replace hydrogenated fat with natural fats, aware that consumers now avoid products with the former.
In Denmark no food may contain more than 2% trans fats.
In Britain, thanks to consumer pressure, Marks & Spencer and Tesco have promised that by mid-2006 all their own-brand products will be free of transfats.
For 30 years hydrogenated fat has been promoted by major advertisers and the National Health Service, and subsidised to keep it cheaper than natural solid fats. The cost of cheap food has been higher health costs. The Danish example offers the only way forward – ban the stuff. Now.