Trans fats are not food so why do we eat them?

I like fat. Butter, cream, olive oil.

But trans fats give fat a bad name.

Artificial trans fats are made by an industrial process of hardening, or “hydrogenating”, oil.

Trans fats are in food – but they are not food.

Trans fat is basically candle wax made from vegetable oil.

The food industrialists use it because it is a cheap filler, prolongs shelf life and has useful cosmetic attributes i.e. it can make a cake look light and fluffy.

As you can imagine, eating candle wax is not good for you: trans fats are toxic and clog up arteries.

There is plenty of scientific evidence to show trans fats are a huge health risk.

Based on the Precautionary Principle (why take an unnecessary risk?), organic standards have always banned trans fats.

Several enlightened countries, as well as New York City, Seattle and the state of California have now also banned them.

The Independent recently asked: why are trans fats still legal in the UK?

Trans fats may appear on a packet as: shortening; hydrogenated vegetable oils; HVO; partially hydrogenated vegetable oils; PHVO.

It’s up to the trans fats manufacturers how to describe trans fats; there are no regulations on terminology.

Dr Alex Richardson, author of They Are What You Feed Them and founder-director of the charity, Food and Behaviour Research, says:

“Good foods make bad commodities; good commodities make bad food.”

What a great quote – sums up our current food crisis…

I have been hanging on to this cutting from The Big Issue since 2008.

It’s an article by Maggie Stanfield, the author of Trans Fat: The Time Bomb in your Food (Souvenir Press).   See the book cover at top of this post.

According to Maggie Stanfield, eight of the big supermarkets said in January 2007 they would remove all trans fats from their own brand ranges. “Some managed it. Others didn’t.”

According to the Independent, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-operative own-brands are now trans-fat free. And, I believe, Sainsbury’s.

In 2010, the National Health Service watchdog, Nice, called for a total ban but instead we got more paper pledges:  in March 2011, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC (and many more) promised to remove artificial trans fats by the end of this year. So did Tesco and Asda.

They promised. By the end of 2011.

What do you think? Can we trust ’em?

26 responses to “Trans fats are not food so why do we eat them?

  1. Hi E
    Good point! Factually, I’m not sure they’re actually toxic (ie poisonous) but their effects are bad. It started with hydrogenating oil (often tallow) to create a butter substitute. It’s rubbish to eat and not part of any natural diet and as such, should be banned.
    Just eat real foods, as I know you do.


  2. Hi Paul – bless you for commenting! (I hate how a newly-posted blog looks before anyone comments!)

    I am seeing online references – here’s another to the World Health Organisation (WHO) calling trans fats toxic.

    However, I cannot find the WHO original reference, as yet.

    So, I will have to make do with: “Trans fat is a toxic chemical, and it does not belong in food any more than arsenic, lead or DDT,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health.

    Apparently the process began, according to Maggie Stanfield, with the search for a substitute for (animal fat) tallow, to make cheap candle wax. She says the German pharmacist-inventor, Wilhelm Norman, did not anticipate people eating hardened fat made from vegetable oil.


  3. The problem regarding trans fats is that if there are no clear labelling by the supermarkets, we would be none the wiser. So the only way of overcome this is to put pressure on supermarkets for clear labelling. The supermarkets are there to make money as they tend to put profit before people. The general public need to be aware of trans fats and of the harmful effect it has on our health.


    • I agree, Nina – clear labelling is essential.

      While researching this post, I found references on an US website to companies boldly printing:

      trans fats: 0g

      …then in tiny writing PHVO (or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil) The cheek!

      Along with clear labelling, I also welcome the big brands’ promise to ban trans fats by the end of 2011.

      Just want to say again, what a pleasure to meet in real life at Tech ‘n’ Tatse blogging event, Nina.

      Thanks so much for a copy of your book, African Fusion Cooking…I feel an Amazon review coming on….


  4. No, I don’t trust any of the supermarkets Elisabeth, although I think the ‘discount supermarkets’ and fast food outlets are the biggest culprits here.
    Why is the UK Government so reluctant to ban trans fats. They have been banned in Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, Austria and large parts of the USA. I suspect that the UK government is more strongly influenced by the convenience of the food industry than by the health the public.


  5. Hi John

    Yes, it does seem: Who has mega-bucks to lobby, Wins.

    The health minister, Andrew Lansley, did not want the expense of regulation (he said). And it’s traditional-Conservative to be “laissez-faire”.

    Well, let’s see if this touching trust in big business honouring its pledges is founded.

    In the meantime, while researching this answer, I came across this great UK site keeping tabs on the situation, The campaign against trans fats in food.


  6. The post 80s demographic is the fastest growing in Western countries. So people might ask, why bother complaining about trans fats when people are living longer? The point is, you live longer but you lose quality of life over longer periods. Older people in the advanced countries suffer long term from heart problems, cancers, dementia etc. How much of this is caused by toxic substances like trans fats? I think very soon, we will understand the insidious, drip drip effect of this type of slow poisoning, thanks to blogs like yours.


  7. Thanks for the useful link Elisabeth – have signed the HM Gov petition to ban trans-fats and will tweet link.


  8. Trust them? I wouldn’t! Read your labels and complain like mad to your local grocer. Be the squeaky wheel 🙂 Eat organically and you won’t have to worry!
    Thanks E for another brilliant expose on corporate corruption of our foods!


    • Jody, thanks.

      I am not familiar with the expression “squeaky wheel”, so I looked it up (on Wikipedia) and thus learnt:

      A squeaky wheel is the one that gets the oil.

      In other words, make a noise to bring attention to a problem.

      What a great expression! Could be the name of a band, or a song…


  9. I believe that they are very bad for high cholesterol.

    Sad there are so many things put in our food we should not be eating.


  10. Clear labelling is essential – and honesty too!


  11. I love your blog Elisabeth! Really looking forward to seeing you on Thursday, too.


  12. Pingback:

  13. Hideous, evil Trans fats! Thankfully I’m always scouring packaging for food allergens and if I see trans fats or their pseudonyms, I avoid. Good rant!


  14. I can’t bear the idea of trans fats as much as I dislike the use of MSG in so many products. Trouble is most people don’t really check the labelling. I think the best solution is to ban them BECAUSE people don’t check.
    I worry about bakeries too as they don’t list ingredients such as Transfats, although I think that they are supposed to but it is something that never really gets enforced.
    Lets hope for their demise!


    • I so agree, Laura. Let’s ban ’em and have done with it!

      My youngest daughter has learning difficulties and as much as she wants to eat healthily, her efforts are being undermined by deliberately misleading marketing. Grrrrrrrr!

      As for trans fats in commercial bakery products….crikey, all the more reason to discover how to bake things at home to avoid all the nasties.

      So great we have your practical food blog to get down with the home cooking!


  15. Another eye-opener – hideous, truly hideous – to think it is in all the things that children like most too!


  16. I only wish I had the answer to the way our foods are being infected. I will certainly look out for trans fats when buying food. Good write up Elisabeth.


  17. It’s really interesting to see all your comments about my book on trans fats. There are a couple of really shocking things: first, a 10 year long survey revealed that just a gram of trans fats a day in your diet makes you 23% more likely to have a heart attack. Trans fats are nine times more dangerous that saturated fats. The labelling issue is huge – trans fats appear under a host of names – and a total ban on their use would be much better. The food processing industry has plenty of other emulsifiers available. And last of all, who want to eat candle wax anyway?


    • Hi Maggie

      Thank you for writing the book, Trans Fats – the Time Bomb in your Food.

      Any news on the big brand pledge to ban trans fats by the end of 2011?

      I have not heard any.

      Candle wax in our food – it is shocking to think this health risk continues.

      It is a pleasure and privilege that you stopped by and left a comment.



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