Released last month, the report from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) called for more measures to reduce salt and saturated fats in foods, lower prices for healthier foods and eliminate artificial trans fats.
Food industry groups reacted in surprise to the report, which, they said, was "out of touch with the reality" since these initiatives have been underway for years, and significant headway has already been made.
Industry and nutrition experts contacted by FoodNavigator.com said they were baffled at how NICE identified trans fats in the UK food chain in light of the massive reformulation efforts already undertaken to remove the artery-clogging fats from fast food chains and processed foods.
"Lions are very dangerous if you're out in the African bush, but not if you're in Johannesburg. It's a bit like that with trans fats. In the UK there are minimal trans fatty acids from industrially hydrogenated vegetable oils," said Professor Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at Kings College London.
However, in an interview with FoodNavigator.com this morning, Paul Lincoln, chief executive of the National Heart Forum and panel member of the NICE programme development group, stressed that the NICE report acknowledges the work already conducted to reduce trans fats in foods.
"There has been excellent progress in reducing trans fat levels, particularly by national food chains, and it looks like levels continue to decrease. But you need a guarantee that this work is taken seriously throughout the food chain, and you need a precautionary approach to make sure that trans fatty acids are not re-introduced," he said.
New trans fat concerns
The NICE report states that despite these "substantial efforts", there are now "new concerns" that have emerged in relation to trans fats.
These concerns are twofold, explained Lincoln. Firstly, independent fast food outlets and small to medium-sized enterprises are still not aware of trans fats, and these are therefore still found in some fried foods. Secondly, there are some segments of the population - specifically children and poorer populations - that remain exposed to high levels of the fats from such foods.
Limits but not labelling?
Efforts now must focus on eliminating these remaining industrially produced trans fatty acids (IPTFAs) from foods, he said. As recommended in the NICE report, the primary action should be to introduce legislation that IPTFA levels do not exceed 2 per cent in the fats and oils used in food manufacturing and cooking.
"This is a precautionary approach and doesn't disadvantage anyone, including industry," he said.
Professor Sanders agreed that a 2 per cent limit is the "way ahead", and said this would also remove the need for labelling on trans fats, which, he said is an unnecessary regulatory burden on food companies. "It's costly and difficult to implement and of dubious value to the consumer."
Lincoln agreed that the first port of call is limiting the levels of permitted trans fats, and that labelling was "not such an important consideration".
"The issue of labelling depends on the levels of IPTFAs in food products. If there's nothing in there, then this effectively removes the need for labelling," he said.
"However, labelling is a human rights issue. If there were detectable levels of trans fats in food products then consumers have the right to know about it. But it's not the most effective action, as you're depending on consumers to take action, and they often don't understand what trans fats are and why they're bad."
To access the NICE report, click here.