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As deadline looms, public health experts urge Government to act on trans-fatty acids

Alison Barrett writes:

With the World Health Organization’s 2023 deadline for global elimination of trans-fatty acids looming, public health experts are urging the Australian Government to urgently implement best-practice policies to help reduce cardiovascular disease.

“With the 2023 deadline for action now here – it is high time the Australian Government took action on the issue,” prominent nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton told Croakey.

“At the very least, we need an updated analysis of the fats being used in our foods, and foods need to carry labelling information so that consumers can make an informed choice.”

Professor Kathryn Backholer, PHAA Vice President (Development) and Co-Director of the Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition at Deakin University told Croakey that “in Australia, there is no requirement to even disclose the amount of trans-fats on food products, unless a fat claim is made.”

The fourth annual WHO report monitoring progress towards the 2023 target – published last week – indicates that Australia is not one of the 43 countries to implement a best practice policy for eliminating TFA.

Backholer said: “This is concerning because although trans-fat intake in Australia is relatively low, there are segments of the population that likely consume trans-fats in amounts that exceed WHO recommendations”.

These are that the intake of trans-fatty acids should not exceed one percent of total energy intake, which is associated with increased risk of heart disease.

“Unfortunately, Australia is lagging behind with no progress on best practice policy implementation,” she said.

Associate Professor Anne-Marie Thow from the University of Sydney told Croakey: “WHO has identified the elimination of trans-fats from the food supply as a best practice policy measure – and the monitoring report shows that many countries are achieving this target.

“However, the Government of Australia has decided not to go with an elimination approach; in fact, they don’t even require companies to list trans-fat on food labels.”

“This is based on an assessment of low consumption in Australia; however, this approach does not align with global best practice. In addition to clear WHO guidance, the US Food and Drug Administration deemed in 2015 that trans-fats are no longer ‘generally recognised as safe’. As such, this report suggests that Australia would be well placed to consider it’s approach to trans-fats,” Thow said.

Longstanding concern

Professor of Public Health Policy at The University of Queensland Amanda Lee told Croakey that “nobody is focusing on [this] in Australia. That is a big issue for low socio-economic areas. It’s been a longstanding, long history of bias sampling and lack of interest in investigating the exposure of trans-fats amongst the most vulnerable in Australia.”

Lee referred to this ABC Radio National segment from 2015 – she said “nothing’s changed” in the seven years since this story was aired.

While Food Standards Australia and New Zealand claim that the average exposure to TFAs in Australia is below the WHOs recommended level, research conducted by The Sax Institute in 2017 found that ten percent of Australians consume more than the recommended amount.

“My conclusion is that Australia has failed to adequately ensure we meet WHO’s recommendation,” Stanton said. “We do not assess TFA intake adequately or require labelling of TFAs.”

The WHO report states:

Countries that are lagging behind in implementing best practice recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) – perhaps because their average TFA intakes are considered low – may see TFA intake rising, as manufacturers seek markets that still permit TFA-containing products.”

The WHO recommends robust policies to eliminate TFA even in countries where TFA intake appears low.

“Best practice policy for trans-fats could save lives in Australia and reduce heart disease, especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged groups,” Backholer told Croakey.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calls on governments to implement best practice policies, in addition to urging the food industry to “help us make up for lost time” by replacing TFAs with healthier fats and oils.

“If they so choose, these companies could have an almost unparalleled impact on global health,” Tedros said.

Key findings

The WHO report on global trans-fat elimination highlights that 60 countries have implemented mandatory policies to eliminate TFAs, with 43 of these implementing a best practice policy.

The authors report that “population coverage of best-practice policies has increased almost six-fold” since the WHO “designated TFA elimination as one of its priority targets” in 2018.

Most policy actions to date have been in higher income countries, in the Americas and Europe.

While several lower-middle income countries have taken action to implement best-practice policies for eliminating TFAs, the report states that no low-income countries have adopted best-practice polices to date.

Best-practice policies include:

  • a mandatory national ban on production, use or sale of partially hydrogenated oils
  • a mandatory national restriction that limits industrially produced TFA to a maximum of two percent of total fats in all fats, oils and foods
  • or a combination of these two measures.

WHO recommends that countries take the following actions in the coming year:

  • develop and implement best-practice policies to set TFA limits or to ban partially hydrogenated oils
  • invest in monitoring and surveillance mechanisms, such as laboratory capacity to measure TFA content in foods
  • start the discussion on healthy replacement oils and fats, and country-specific alternative techniques, and develop a replacement roadmap
  • advocate for regional or subregional regulations to expand the benefits of TFA policies.

“Trans-fatty acids have no known health benefits, and huge health risks. It’s time to get rid of them, once and for all,” Tedros said.

Full statement from Professor Rosemary Stanton

The Blewett Labelling Review (2011) stated in Recommendation 13: That mandatory declaration of all trans-fatty acids above an agreed threshold be introduced in the Nutrition Information Panel if manufactured trans-fatty acids have not been phased out of the food supply by January 2013.

FSANZ discusses trans-fatty acids on their website and refers to this recommendation. However, they ‘monitored’ trans-fatty acids in foods in 2013 and claimed that average (my emphasis) exposure to TFAs in Australia was 0.5 percent and in New Zealand 0.6 percent of daily energy which they rated as well below World Health Organization limit (which was 1% of energy). FSANZ presented their report to Ministers in 2014. It was accepted and no further action was taken on trans-fatty acid.

There are several problems with FSANZ’s reasoning on this issue.

Averages hide extremes. 

(I always think of the story of a man who couldn’t swim but wanted to cross a river. He asked how deep it was and was told the average depth was only one metre. He drowned when he reached the middle.)

In 2017 The Sax Institute’s analysis of their national nutrition survey found that 10 percent of Australians consumed more than the WHO recommended limit. In looking at those with the lowest income levels, 14.2 percent exceeded the WHO limit. A similar number of those with low education levels also exceeded the WHO limit.

The Sax Institute report demonstrated that eating a meat pie, a custard tart and some popcorn over the course of a day could contribute up to seven grams of trans-fat, if those foods happened to be the high trans-fat samples identified in FSANZ’s survey. That’s around three percent of daily energy intake – three times the WHO-recommended limit.

FSANZ’s monitoring was faulty.

FSANZ tested a total of 500 samples from 39 different product categories. It reported that excluding those likely to contain ruminant trans-fat, approximately 86 percent of the samples had trans-fat concentrations below two percent of total fat content, the limit adopted by many countries and that the results were generally consistent with those seen in a survey five years earlier.

On the surface these numbers sound reassuring, but put another way, that’s 14 percent of samples with trans-fat levels above that limit. The worst offending product categories were croissants, prepared pastry, vegetable oils, edible oil spreads and custard baked goods. Ideally we’d avoid the high trans-fat products from these categories, but as trans-fats aren’t even labelled, that’s easier said than done.

The FSANZ survey involved contacting 52 food companies and suppliers who supply oils to fast food and quick service restaurants. Only 22 replied and all 22 said they were all reducing or planning on reducing the trans-fat content of their products. What of the other 48 percent of companies that didn’t respond? FSANZ simply ignored them. Did these companies fail to respond because they weren’t reducing trans-fat content of their products? It’s hard not to make that assumption, but FSANZ ignored them.

To check if trans-fats were still in our food, Choice bought just a handful of products – selected for their relatively long shelf life, high fat content and non-descript ‘vegetable fat’ or ‘vegetable oil’ high up in the ingredients list. Laboratory analysis found:

Four’n Twenty Party Sausage Rolls 0.7g trans-fat per 100g (4.3% of total fat content)
Sargents Traditional Meat Pies 0.2g (1.4%)
Doritos Cheese Supreme: 0.1g (0.5%)
Cadbury Mini Rolls 0.1g (0.4%)
Toscano French Croissants 0.1g (0.4%)
Betty Crocker Creamy Deluxe Frosting 0.1g (0.4%)

Although the six products tested mostly had relatively low levels of trans-fat, the sausage rolls were high. None of these products were labelled and it’s quite possible that many similar products may have similar – or higher – levels of trans-fat. We simply do not know.

The situation today

My conclusion is that Australia has failed to adequately ensure we meet WHO’s recommendation. We do not assess TFA intake adequately or require labelling of trans-fatty acids. The Government of the day when this issue arose accepted FSANZ’s report and did nothing and nothing has been done since.

With the 2023 deadline for action now here – it is high time the Australian government took action on the issue.

At the very least, we need an updated analysis of the fats being used in our foods and foods need to carry labelling information so that consumers can make an informed choice.

FSANZ response

Croakey approached FSANZ for comment, who replied: “As you may be aware, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) develops and administers the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. FSANZ does not decide overarching food policy. The Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care may be able to assist you with questions on Australian Government food policy.”


See Croakey’s archive of articles on commercial determinants of health.

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