Federal trans-fat report prompts call for regulation

A federal report on trans fats in pre-packaged foods has pleased the health minister but prompted the Heart and Stroke Foundation to call for mandatory rules cutting the use of the product, especially in bakeries.

Heart and Stroke Foundation says voluntary reduction efforts are failing

A federal report on trans fats in pre-packaged foods has pleased the health minister but prompted the Heart and Stroke Foundation to call for mandatory rules cutting the use of the product, especially in bakeries.

Four out of five pre-packaged foods met the trans-fat limit recommended by a federal task force, Health Canada said Thursday in a news release. But when the actual data was released later, it showed a much more checkered picture.

Food from ethnic restaurants did very well, but in bakeries, only four of 16 samples of croissants met the suggested limit on trans fats as a proportion of total fats. Less than half the pies, danishes, brownies, cakes and doughnuts were under the limit.

Only 17 of 29 samples of products from coffee and doughnut shops (59 per cent) met the suggested limit.

What are trans fats?

Trans fats raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol in the body and can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. Trans fats, initially believed to be a cheaper and healthier alternative to butter and lard, are created when liquid oils are turned into solids.

The government was pleased "to see that industry has reduced the level of trans fat in many pre-packaged foods," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in the news release.

But the Heart and Stroke Foundation said voluntary efforts to cut trans fats were failing, and it was time for the government to regulate their use.

"Although some companies and sectors have stepped up to the plate and done well, overall the food industry is not sufficiently reducing trans fats voluntarily," CEO Sally Brown said in a news release. "The time has come for the federal government to regulate."

Many producers "just can't be bothered" to meet the voluntary limits, so regulation is needed, she said.

The foundation said it is disheartening that so many products that appeal to children failed to meet the voluntary guidelines.

Eating a lot of trans fats can triple the risk of heart disease and is responsible for at least 3,000 cardiac deaths every year in Canada, the foundation said.

Health Canada analyzed bakery products, "a small sample" of international foods sold in restaurants and data from the nutrition table on pre-packaged foods to see how many products met the 2006 task force recommendation that trans fats account for a maximum of:

  • Two per cent of the total fat content for vegetable oils and soft margarines.
  • Five per cent of the total fat content for all other foods, including ingredients sold to restaurants.

The foods sampled include:

  • Bakery products sold in grocery stores, such as croissants, pies, tarts, cakes, brownies and donuts.
  • Foods from restaurants serving Chinese, Thai, East Indian, Lebanese, Caribbean, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines.
  • Doughnuts and muffins from popular coffee and doughnut shops.
  • Pre-packaged foods from grocery stores, including cookies, crackers, instant noodles, frozen potatoes, desserts, snacks and popcorn.

Health Canada reports on the industry's voluntary two-year plan to reduce trans fats through the Trans Fat Monitoring Program.  

The release Thursday was the third on the monitoring program. The earlier reports looked at foods that had previously been highest in trans fats, such as fast foods from chains and pre-packaged foods. 

A fourth trans-fat report is set for the summer.