Banning a single ingredient could prevent thousands of deaths

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

4/11/2020 3:23:44 PM

Legislating to remove trans fatty acids from the Australian food supply could save lives and millions of dollars, new research shows.

Food label
Despite the known health risks, it is not compulsory for manufacturers in Australia to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition information panel on packaged foods.

Heart disease results in approximately 1100 hospitalisations each day and represents one in five deaths, making it the leading cause of mortality in Australia.  
But new research suggests that thousands of heart attacks and deaths could be prevented by banning a well-known risk factor – trans fatty acids.
While there are naturally occurring trans fats in meat and cow’s milk, a form found in some processed foods created during the industrial process converts vegetable oils into a solid form of fat.
Modelling conducted by the George Institute for Global Health found government legislation banning the ingredient could prevent around 10,000 heart attacks and 2000 deaths over the first 10 years, and up to 42,000 deaths over the lifetime of the adult population.
Dr Jason Wu is one of the study’s co-authors and Program Head of Nutrition Science at the George Institute for Global Health. He told newsGP the findings confirm taking action is a ‘worthwhile’ public health intervention, with particular benefits for socioeconomically disadvantaged groups and those living outside major cities.
‘If the government were to legislate a ban on these industrial trans fats, we could save thousands and thousands of lives over the next 10 to 20 years,’ he said.
‘Also, because the current consumption pattern is that people who are from more disadvantaged backgrounds – so less education and income – tend to have more trans fat in their diet, our research also suggests that with this intervention can also help to reduce that health disparity that’s caused by this trans fat intake.
‘So more of the benefit would actually be gained by people from more disadvantaged backgrounds.’
An argument cited against eliminating trans fats entirely has been the cost posed to government and the food industry. But modelling by Dr Wu and his co-authors shows the legislation would save money in the long run. 
They found the cost of implementing a nationwide ban of trans fats is estimated to be $22 million during the first 10 years and $56 million over the population lifetime, the majority of which would be government costs for monitoring the ban’s implementation.
However, over 10 years the estimated heart disease-related healthcare cost savings reached $80 million and $538 million over a lifetime.
While intake of trans fatty acids in Australia is comparatively lower to countries such as the US and UK, it is estimated that one in 10 people consume levels that exceed health guidelines.

Dr Jason Wu, Program Head of Nutrition Science at the George Institute for Global Health, says taking action on trans fats is a worthwhile public health intervention.

Dr Wu says an independent expert review commissioned by the Australian Government in 2010 recommended that, at a minimum, labelling of trans fat content be mandated. But no action has been taken, making it difficult to make informed food choices, especially for those with poor health literacy. 
‘The government has chosen to ignore that advice,’ Dr Wu said. ‘It’s really quite appalling.
‘We’re really lagging behind as a country. The US, Canada, Brazil – they’ve all banned that ingredient outright.
‘There are other countries that have said you can’t have more than say 2% as a total in any given product. Others said we’re not going to ban it, but we are going to make it very transparent for consumers saying you must label the amount of trans fat that’s contained in your food so people can make an informed choice.
‘But in Australia trans fat is not a required label. You won’t find it in the nutrition information panel.’
The latest findings from the 30-year Global Burden of Disease Study revealed that while life expectancy is increasing, so too are the years that people live in poor health, Australia included.
Researchers suggested a rise in risk factors such as obesity, and non-communicable diseases coupled with social inequality had thus far fuelled the spread of COVID-19.
Dr Wu says this is further evidence government action is ‘absolutely vital’ to help people make informed choices.
‘We know that poor dietary intake is the number one risk factor for things like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,’ he said. ‘People with these existing conditions are at a much higher risk of dying if they contract COVID in emerging research, but the evidence is starting to accumulate.
‘We also know that diet can actually rapidly improve your health. There are trials that show if you give people healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and decrease things like trans fat, within six to 12 weeks you can really drop people’s LDL cholesterol, you can lower their blood pressure.’
In the meantime, however, Dr Wu recommends GPs continue to advise at-risk patients, or those with heart disease, to be mindful of avoiding trans fats.
‘The message is twofold. One is actually staying away from these kinds of foods, which are what we call “discretionary”, which you probably shouldn’t have too much of,’ he said.
‘Secondly, when shopping in supermarkets, where there is a food label available, look at the ingredient list. If you see it says this product contains partially hydrogenated fat or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil then definitely stay away from that product because that’s indicative of the presence of trans fats.’
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Correction: This article originally suggested reduced trans fat can lower HDL cholesterol​.

heart disease preventive medicine trans fatty acids

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