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Hold that fat
The government has finally woken up to the dangers of trans fats. Oil companies will now have to reduce levels to below 10 per cent. They will also have to display the amount of saturated fat content on packs.
A piping hot plate of chhole bhature from a street-side shop can be difficult to resist. But it's not just the calories that one needs to fret about, it is the vanaspati it is fried in. Vanaspati or hydrogenated oils are loaded with trans fats - a known trigger for heart attacks. Even tiny amounts have been found to be harmful.
Denmark was the first country to ban them, saying there was "no such thing as a safe limit". Switzerland and Austria have since followed. Till now, India did not have any curbs in place. However, after years of consultation, it has finally taken the first step. The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will soon pass a rule putting a cap on the trans fatty acid (TFA) level in cooking oils, especially vanaspati. Manufacturers will have to reduce TFA below 10 per cent with immediate effect and below 5 per cent within the next three years. It will also be obligatory for companies to mention the amount of saturated fatty acids in the oil.
"Till now, there has been no regulation. Companies have been using this lacuna to their advantage, " says FSSAI CEO Dr V N Gaur. The new rules will soon be notified.
Trans fats are artificially hydrogenated oils used primarily to extend the shelf life of food. Extra hydrogen is pumped into polyunsaturated vegetable oils to retain flavor stability of eatables.
An earlier survey by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) - the only one conducted till now - found that all seven vanaspati brands available in the country had TFA levels that were five to 12 times higher than the world's only standard, set in Denmark, at 2 per cent of the total oil. Vanaspati is especially favoured by street-side stalls and small restaurants as it costs less than vegetable oils sold in the market. Scientists believe that molecules of hydrogenated oil actually break off in the digestive tract to become free radicals - molecules that trigger diseases in our body.
Dr Ashok Seth, chief cardiologist of Escorts Heart Research Institute, says there is no healthy limit for trans fat. "Even small amounts increase bad LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin levels and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol, " he says. "Trans fat is found in abundance in preserved and shelved food like cakes and are harmful. "
Dr Seth believes that all products with trans fat must advertise its quantity, much like what cigarette packets do with a health warning. "Restaurants in India should also learn from eateries in New York and Canada and start advertising how much trans fat exits in their food, " he says.
While terming the FSSI move a "welcome step", Dr Anoop Misra, director of the metabolic diseases department at Fortis hospitals, says that ideally the content of trans fat should be reduced to less than one percent rapidly in a phased manner. "A substantial contribution to diabetes and heart disease in Indians is from tans fat derived mostly from partially hydrogentated vegetable oils, " he says.
Oil is needed by our body for absorption of food, but doctors say the quantity consumed by a person should be restricted to three to four teaspoons per day. Apart from heart disease, studies have shown that consumption of TFA may lead to various health problems including obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia (abnormal blood lipid levels), cancer and infertility. Trans fat also increase risk for problems during pregnancy (preeclampsia;high blood pressure, water retention ) and problems in fetal development.
In 2005, all restaurants in California went trans fat-free voluntarily. In 2008, the US government made it mandatory. The following year, even New York banned trans fat. The American Heart Association also recommends avoiding trans fat as much as possible. Scientists say an increase of 5 gm of trans fat a day is equivalent to a 25 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Experts suggest the use of vegetable oil instead of vanaspati, but they have issued a strong warning against a common Indian habit - re-heating and re-cooking vegetable oils, primarily due to the steep cost. They say that though polyunsaturated oils have been touted as the healthy choice, you have to treat them carefully. Moreover, though many oil brands now claim to have 'zero trans fat', they may contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil which are almost as bad.
"Even vegetable oils, when pre-heated and cooked several times create trans fatty acids, changing the chemical structure of healthy polyunsaturated fats into something unhealthy, " says KK Agarwal, president of Heart Care Foundation of India. He points out that even when unsaturated oils are left out in the open air for extended periods of time, as they often are in deep fryers and many home kitchens, they oxidize and turn rancid, which also creates trans fats.
In 2004, the health ministry's oils and fats sub-committee, under the Central Committee for Food Standards began discussions on a standard for trans fat. In January 2008, the sub-committee forwarded its recommendations to the central committee. But instead of standards, in September 2008, the health ministry issued a notification for labeling of trans fat on oil and food.
"So today, oil companies get away by giving the composition in a range. Rath vanaspati, for instance, says its package has 8-33 per cent trans fat. This would mean that the product has 15 times higher trans fat than the Danish standard. This makes a complete mockery of the regulations, " says Sunita Narain from CSE.
Experts say both saturated fats and trans fatty acids are bad for us. Saturated fats are almost always found in foods that also contain cholesterol and so deliver a hard punch to heart health.
Fortunately, today it is relatively easy to identify foods that contain substantial amounts of trans fats. The easiest way is to check the food labels, since by law food manufacturers must now disclose the quantity of trans fats that have gone into their products.
HOW TO AVOID TRANS FAT IN YOUR DAILY DIET?
Avoid using vanaspati. When deep frying foods (poori/ bhatura/ pakora) at home, don't heat the oil too long. Avoid ready-to-use food mixes because they are more likely to contain TFA Check the nutrition facts on packaged food items for TFA content. If it is more than 0. 5 gram per serving then avoid the product and search for a healthy substitute Check the ingredients list on packaged food for words like "shortening", "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "hydrogenated vegetable oil" - these are nothing but TFA. If these are mentioned, avoid the product When eating out, ask the owner/server regarding the type of fat/oil being used in the kitchen Avoid foods that are prepared/ fried in vanaspati or margarine such as, fried aloo chaat, french fries, samosa, bhatura, cookies, chips, cakes.
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