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Health Alert

Trans fat curbs soon

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Our burgers, biscuits, namkeens and colas will soon be less unhealthy. India is set to quantify the permissible limit of trans fatty acid (TFA), if at all, in the food products to be sold in the country. The Union health ministry is bringing about a new regulation in the Food and Safety Standards Act that will for the first time put in place an upper limit to the amount of trans fat in common fast food items.

The manufacturers will be required to specify whether the product contains any TFA in it and if it does, the amount will have to be clearly stated on the package. "A high level scientific committee has prepared the limits. We have sent the TFA counts to the ministry of law for clearance, " a senior ministry official told TOI-Crest.

In yet another step to curb the use of trans fats in cooking oils, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will soon notify that TFA content in cooking oils, especially vanaspati, will have to be reduced below 10 per cent with immediate effect and below five per cent within the next three years. This was first reported by TOI-Crest on February 4. "The notification on vanaspati will come very soon, " an FSSAI official said.

A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that most junk foods contain high levels of trans fats, salts and sugar - which inevitably leads to cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes. The CSE laboratory tested 16 popular snacks including Maggi and Top Ramen noodles, MacDonald's foods, KFC's fried chicken and Haldiram's aloo bhujia and discovered that companies resort to large scale misbranding and misinformation.

In a normal adult diet, a maximum of one per cent of total energy should come from trans fats, according to the World Health Organisation guidelines. Therefore, an adult male can have 2. 6 grams of trans fats per day, while an adult female can have 2. 1 grams and a child (10-12 years) can have 2. 3 grams. Though Top Ramen Super Noodles (Masala) claims it has 'zero trans fat', the CSE found 0. 7 grams per 100 grams. Similarly, aloo bhujia had 2. 5 grams of TFA per 100 grams contradicting its claim of being trans fat-free.

These junk foods fared no better when it came to salt content. The National Institute of Nutrition benchmark for maximum salt that one person should have in a day is six grams, while the WHO puts it at five grams. The normal 80-gram packet of Maggi noodles was found to have over 3. 5 grams of salt.

One of the main sources of transfat in India is the vanaspati that is used to cook roadside yummies like samosas and jalebis. Vanaspati, a hydrogenated oil, is loaded with trans fat, which is a known trigger for heart attacks and causes thousands of premature deaths globally every year. Even very small amounts of trans fat have been found to be harmful. Former FSSAI CEO Dr V N Gaur had told TOI, "Till now, there has been no regulation on TFA content in oil. Companies have been using this lacuna to their advantage. "

An earlier survey by the CSE found that all vanaspati brands available in the country had TFA levels five to 12 times higher than the world's only standard, set in Denmark, at 2 per cent of the total oil.

Dr Ashok Seth, chief cardiologist of Escorts Heart Research Institute, says there is no health limit for TFAs. "Even small amounts increase bad LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin levels and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol, " he says. Since oil is needed by our body for absorption of food, he recommends vegetable oils rather than vanaspati.

Trans fat is found in abundance in preserved foods, carbonated beverages and commercial baked products like cakes and cookies. Experts say products with trans fat must carry a statutory warning just like cigarette packets do. "Restaurants in India, like those in New York and Canada, must also start advertising how much trans fat exists in their food, " says Seth.

Scientists believe that molecules of hydrogenated oil actually break off in the digestive tract to become free radicals - molecules which cause diseases. An increase of five g of trans fat a day leads to a 25 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. The American Heart Association also recommends avoiding trans fat as far as possible. "There is no threshold below which they are safe. We saw a linear relationship: The more trans fats you consume, the worse it is for your heart, " say the guidelines.

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