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Trans Ban

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Last fall, NDP leader Jack Layton introduced a motion in Parliament that called on the federal government to present a Bill to eliminate trans fat from food sold in Canada.

Last fall, NDP leader Jack Layton introduced a motion in Parliament that called on the federal government to present a Bill to eliminate trans fat from food sold in Canada. The motion passed 193 to 73, paving the way for Canada to become the second country ever to ban the harmful substance.

Trans fats are a known contributor to cardiovascular disease. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, there is no known safe level of trans fat consumption.

Denmark's success in March 2003 imposing a two percent upper limit of total fat for trans fats in processed foods encouraged the NDP party to introduce the anti-trans fat motion. "The experience in Denmark has shown us that this is viable, that you can implement this kind of ban," Layton said in an interview with alive magazine.

Soon after the motion passed Canada's Parliament in November 2004 Health Canada established a multi-stakeholder task force to explore healthy alternatives to trans fat and to determine how best to make the transition from trans fat to other oils with the least possible impact on the country's food industry. The task force will make its final recommendations to the Minister of Health this November.

So, What Exactly is Trans Fat?

Trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are created when a liquid vegetable oil is chemically treated with hydrogen to turn it into a solid and give it a longer shelf life. Trans fats are sometimes listed as vegetable oil shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on ingredient lists.

They're everywhere. Trans fats can be found in about 40 percent of the products on our grocery store shelves, from potato chips and frozen waffles to processed peanut butter. They're even found in seemingly healthy food choices such as granola bars and bran flake cereals with raisins.

The amount of trans fat in some of the foods Canadians eat is alarmingly high. One popular brand of microwavable buttered popcorn has over five grams of trans fat per serving. A frozen fish fillet has over 2.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Even bran muffins sold at a popular national coffee chain were found to contain half a gram of trans fat! This is not good news for Canadian consumers.

Why are Trans Fats so Dangerous?

When trans fat use first became widespread between the 1950s and the 1980s as an alternative to animal fats, no one had any reason to suspect that it was any more dangerous than any other fats on the market. However, in the 1990s, research began to show that when vegetable fat is turned into a solid, it raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol levels. It also lowers the level of "good" cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which cleanses the circulatory system and protects against cardiovascular disease.

The Harvard University's Nurse's Health Study of 85,000 US women found a 53-percent increase in risk of heart disease in those who ate the most trans fats compared with those who ate the least. Similarly, a study published in 1997 by the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that eating just one gram of trans fat a day increased a person's chance of developing cardiovascular disease by 20 percent.

Yet here in Canada, the average consumer eats about eight to 10 grams a day one of the highest consumption levels in the world.

As long-time readers will know, alive has been reporting on the dangers of trans fats for years. Siegfried Gursche, founder of the magazine, calls trans fats "the single most dangerous ingredient in our food." His concern about trans fats compelled him to print numerous of articles about them including an article published in 1975, in one of the magazine's very first issues.

"Trans fats are so heavily processed, they aren't even food any more. They're like plastic," he says. "The molecular structure of the oil is so damaged by hydrogenation that the liver doesn't even recognize it as food. It can't digest trans fats and tries to flush them out of our system by producing more cholesterol. That's where our high cholesterol levels come from."

Children Especially at Risk

Canadian children are particularly threatened by the high levels of trans fat in Canadian foods. According to Jack Layton, the average Canadian child consumes upward of 30 grams of trans fat daily.

He blames the kinds of food that are offered to children these days: "More and more prepared foods, things that are packaged...often with healthy-looking labels and messages."

In other words, if you want to keep children from eating trans fat, you've got to read the list of ingredients and make sure partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable oil shortening are not listed as ingredients in any products you plan to purchase. Otherwise, your children may be facing a future plagued with heart problems and other forms of cardiovascular disease.

What's Being Done to Solve this Problem?

In May 2004 the World Health Organization (WHO) in its Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health urged all nations to limit the levels of trans fat in existing products and issue simple, clear, and consistent food labels that help consumers make informed and healthy choices.

A number of Canadian companies have already voluntarily begun to phase trans fat out of some of their food products in response to growing consumer concern. Voortman became the first Canadian cookie manufacturer to eliminate trans fats from their products in 2003. Other companies that have announced plans to remove trans fats from their products include Cavendish Farms, McCain Foods, and Kellogg's Canada.

However, Layton cautions that the voluntary actions taken by the food industry aren't enough to solve the trans fat problem.

"Voluntary measures have not reduced the consumption of trans fat. In fact, the evidence seems to indicate that consumption is still going up," he says. "It would seem that the work being done is not stemming the tide."

That's why the NDP has been pushing for action on the issue for well over a year. In February 2004, Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin proposed a Bill to reduce the level of trans fats in processed foods. However, the Bill didn't come to a vote before the 2004 election and died on paper.

This year, Layton has high hopes that last fall's successful motion will lead to a Bill that will actually be passed.

"We're hoping that people will support this Bill and get in touch with us through our website ndp.ca and stay posted on this issue so that when the Bill comes forward, we'll be able to show that there's considerable public support," he says.

Siegfried Gursche is cautiously optimistic about the future Bill. He welcomes the elimination of trans fats from our food, but questions whether a process will be put in place to ensure that manufacturers actually comply. "Will the ban be policed?" he wonders. "That's my concern. If it's not going to be policed, then we're still going to have lots of products out there with high levels of trans fats."

In the meantime, as we wait for the Bill to come forward, there are several actions Canadians can take to reduce the threat of trans fats in our own lives. We can voice our concern about trans fats to our local MPs and tell them to make sure they pass an anti-trans fat bill that actually has teeth.

Even better, we can show the food industry we don't want trans fat by refusing to buy products that contain it and by supporting companies that are choosing to use healthier alternatives in their products. Our greatest protection from trans fats is making better food choices. We can limit our reliance on processed foods and buy more whole foods, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meat, poultry, and seafood.

As Layton points out, making these dietary changes may involve some personal sacrifice. In refusing to eat trans fat, he has had to give up one of his favourite foods, processed peanut butter. "I'm a peanut butter addict, and I've had to give up peanut butter, which is tough," he laughs. "I've eaten large quantities of peanut butter my whole life, but now I've had to change that practice."

Fortunately for him, natural peanut butter made without hydrogenated vegetable oil is readily available in health food stores and many major grocery chains. Besides, when improving the health of society as a whole, change is good.

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