Yesterday (24 April 2019), the European Commission adopted a regulation that sets a 2% legal limit to the amount of trans fats in processed foods.
Per the legislation, processed food products that contain more than 2 g of trans fats per 100 g of fat must be declared to retailers by wholesalers, as of April 1 2021.
A public health risk
Trans fatty acids (TFAs) occur naturally in small amounts in certain foods such as meat and cheese.
The public health risk, however, relates to industrial, or artificial trans fats. These are produced by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils, which can be found in margarine and some hardened vegetable fats.
While partially hydrated oils have traditionally been favoured by food manufacturers for their low cost and longer shelf life, high levels of consumption have been associated with non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and stroke. It is also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Europe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that trans fat intake leads to more than 500,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease per year.
According to the WHO, diets high in trans-fat increase heart disease risk by 21% and deaths by 28%.
Support for an overarching limit
The regulation comes after MEPs voted overwhelmingly in support of enforcing a 2% legal limit in 2016. By this time, a number of Member States had already taken regulation into their own hands.
Denmark, for example, restricted the content of industrially-produced trans fats in 2003, and has seen heart disease rates fall. Other countries to have adopted similar regulation include Austria, Latvia and Switzerland.
This latest legislation has been met with praise from certain industry organisations in Europe.
FoodDrinkEurope (FDE) for example, which represents the interests of food and beverage manufacturers, has voiced its support of the new EU regulation. The membership body says the vast majority of Europe’s food and drink sector had already eliminated industrial trans fats from processed foods.
FDE is now pushing for mandatory hydrogenation labelling to be addressed: “Now that a legal limit has been set at EU level, FoodDrinkEurope recommends the deletion of the mandatory labelling requirement for hydrogenation as part of the next round of labelling updates to Regulation (EU) 1169/201 on the provision of food information to consumers, given that such labelling will be redundant.”
The federation representing the European vegetable oil and proteinmeal industry, FEDIOL, has similarly backed the regulation, saying it consolidates reformulation work made by the sector to improve health and nutritional profiles of oil- and fat-containing products.
In line with FDE, the federation has also backed a change in labelling requirements. “Companies in our sector are engaged with their customers to support the implementation of technical solutions and to ensure compliance with the new legislation,” explained FEDIOL president John Grossmann.
“With this EU legislation soon in place, we should seriously reassess the usefulness of the existing labelling requirements of fully and partially hydrogenated oils which becomes not only redundant, but also rather confusing.”
At a consumer level, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has ‘applauded’ the new limit of 2 g of trans fats per 100 g of fat, but deems the 2021 deadline too generous.
“The consumer group regrets that businesses get a transition period until April 2021 to adapt to the new rules. National limits have already existed for over 15 years in some countries with proven effects and little disruption to industry,” stated the organisation.