Concern over trans fat levels in Portuguese pastries

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

The research identifies Portugal's traditional pastries as a food that uses fats with high TFA content. (Image:
The research identifies Portugal's traditional pastries as a food that uses fats with high TFA content. (Image:

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High levels of trans fats in Portuguese foods, especially pastry, are contributing to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, cancer and diabetes, according to a study -  but processed and packaged pastries are not the worst offenders.

The research identifies the country’s traditional pastries as a food that uses fats with high TFA content. Researchers discovered some samples in the pastry and cookies group, contained up to 30.2% TFA in the fat.

The latest study, carried out by researchers from the University of Porto, elaborates on the outdated information of TFA in Portuguese foods, as well as accurately assess the population’s TFA exposure.

Whilst the majority of food samples used were available from supermarkets, food samples sold by small and privately owned shops were also included, from diverse geographical areas in Portugal due to the recognised importance of local traditional pastry.

biscuit factory unhealthy
The biscuits, wafers and cookies group recorded the highest average TFA content in the study (image:

Altogether, 268 food samples were used. Categories assigned to each food included breakfast cereals, biscuits and cookies bouillon cubes, butter, chocolate snacks, chocolate spreads, fast food, instant desserts, instant soups, margarines, pastry, popcorn, and potato chips. Butter was included only for comparison purposes, as it contained natural TFA.

Total TFA content in the fat ranged from 0.06% to 30.2% (average 1.9%), with the highest average values in the “biscuits, wafers and cookies” group (3.4% TFA), followed by the pastry group (2.0%). Fifty samples (19%) had TFA superior to 2% in the fat.

“Two categories of foods are of major concern: pastry and cookies,” ​said the report. “Pastry products, particularly non-industrial unpackaged ones, have an elevated prevalence of samples with TFA superior to 2%, while the cookies group presented the higher TFA amounts.”

“The elevated prevalence of TFA in the pastry group, a highly available low-price food product in Portugal, with elevated consumption, requires measures to substitute the fats used, as already been achieved in most industrial pastry.”

Consistent evidence already exists on the harmful health effects of industrial TFAs, which has led some countries to implement measures​ to reduce TFA amounts in processed foods. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently produced a report highlighting the benefits and the importance of a trans-fat ban in Europe followed by a statement submitted by a group of civil society organisations and food industry operators supporting the idea​ of establishing a legal limit equivalent to a ban.

In December of last year, the European Commission published its long-awaited report​ in which it stated a limit on permitted levels of industrial trans fats in food was the most effective way to reduce Europeans' risk of heart disease. However, the report did not say what the limit should be.


Previous surveys have been carried out in different countries to assess TFA content in food. The TRANSFAIR study, which took place between 1980 and 1996, involved 14 European countries, including Portugal. This study estimated daily ingestions ranging from 1.2 g in Greece and Italy to 6.7 g in Iceland, with high variability between countries, food groups, and even genders.

A decade later, two surveys carried out in 2006​ and 2012​ ​showed a general reduction, but the consumption of TFA was still potentially high in some populations.

Results from this study compared favourably with other European countries, where a self-regulatory approach is in place. Potato chips, popcorn, bakery, breakfast cereals, instant soups, and sauces contained less than 2% TFA in the fat.

In the European survey carried out in 2006, where 542 samples foods from 26 countries were analysed, Portugal had up to 14% of TFA in popcorn and 4% in nuggets and French fries, representing a clear improvement.

All popcorn samples analysed in the present study specified the fat source, with three using solely native palm fat and one with fully hydrogenated palm kernel fat, corroborated by the low TFA quantified.

Source: Food Control

Published online ahead of print, Vol. 64, June 2016, pp. 128–134 doi:10.1016/j.foodcont.2015.12.010

“Trans fatty acids in the Portuguese food market”

Authors: Nádia Costa, Rebeca Cruz, Pedro Graça, João Breda and Susana Casala

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