Danish ban on artificial trans fat saves 1,200 lives in 16 years – New Scientist

The ban on adding artificial trans fatty acids to food is believed to have saved 1,200 lives in Denmark between 1991 and 2007. Fewer people died from cardiovascular diseases, especially in disadvantaged groups.

“This is an excellent lesson: if governments set high standards for nutrition, it can have a huge impact on public health,” said public health and obesity researcher Gary Sacks of Deakin University in Melbourne, who was not involved in the study.

Trans fatty acids are usually produced artificially by chemically processing vegetable oils with hydrogen (hydrogenation) to change them from liquid to solid. They became popular in the twentieth century due to their low cost and long shelf life.

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Cookies and cakes

Trans fats are mainly used in margarine and processed bakery products such as cookies, cakes, donuts and pies. They are also in fried fast food products because partially hydrogenated vegetable oil needs to be changed less often than other oils. Small amounts of trans fats also occur naturally in some meat and dairy products.

In 1993, a groundbreaking study showed a link between diets high in trans fat and heart disease. Denmark reacted quickly. In 1994, local margarine manufacturers agreed to limit the amount of trans fat in their products. In 2003, the Danish government banned all foods that contained more than just traces of artificial trans fat.

The country has since seen one of the steepest falls in heart disease deaths in Europe. How much of this is due to the elimination of artificial trans fats has been unclear until now.

Coronary heart disease

To find out, nutritional epidemiologist Kirsten Bjørnsbo from Bispebjerg and Frederiksberg Hospital in Denmark and her colleagues analyzed data on Danish death rates, dietary habits, other risk factors such as smoking and the effects of healthcare progress over time.

They found that deaths from coronary heart disease in Denmark decreased by 74 percent between 1991 and 2007. About 11 percent of this decrease can be attributed to the elimination of artificial trans fats, which equates to about 1,200 lives saved.

Most lives seem to have been saved in the lower income groups, as they were previously the biggest consumers of trans fats. “Regulating food composition is usually more equitable than strategies like labeling because it benefits the entire population, not just those who have the motivation and resources to change,” says Sacks.

Prohibit

Forcing food manufacturers to cut back on cheap trans fats may have raised the price of some foods, but only foods “like pies and cakes that you already want people to eat less of anyway, so that’s probably a good thing,” says nutritionist Peter Clifton from the University of South Australia.

Several countries have since followed Denmark’s lead in banning artificial trans fatty acids, including the US in 2018 and the rest of the EU in 2021. Other countries, including the UK and Australia, have not banned them but have called for voluntary elimination. The World Health Organization is working with policy makers around the world to try to eliminate artificial trans fats from the global food supply by 2023.

Low hanging fruit

Eliminating trans fats is the low-hanging fruit of food regulation because they can easily be replaced with healthier fats, Sacks says. It is more challenging to regulate things like sugar and salt. We cannot remove them completely, as they occur naturally in most foods and are important for taste.

Governments could set mandatory limits on quantities to prevent overconsumption, he says. ‘I think it shows that regulation can improve the health of the whole population.’

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