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Have you had your trans fats today?

Canada’s MPs hope not as they vote to restrict these killers

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While some people vote for junk food – in moderation or otherwise – parliament voted last week to just say no on everyone’s behalf, at least to the fatty bits.

Acting on a private member’s bill that first gathered steam under the NDP’s Pat Martin from Winnipeg Centre and was re-introduced last week by Jack Layton, MPs have voted to move toward banning trans fats in foods. Legislation will be introduced next year to virtually eliminate trans fats by reducing them to 2 gm of every 100 gm of fat or oil. As well, Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh has committed Health Canada to striking a task force on strategies for reducing trans fats in food.

In the meantime, the debate rages on – does government have a right to be in the fridges and cupboards of the nation? In this case, I say yes. As does the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

It has nothing to do with the fact that the passage of said legislation would make Canada second only to Denmark in putting the lid on trans fats, and we all know how hip Scandinavian countries are. It has everything to due with the fact that trans fats are pretty scary.

Essentially, trans fats are formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils, like canola oil or soybean oil or palm oil or cottonseed oil, into solid or near-solid fats by hydrogenating them – that is, adding hydrogen. The result is a fat that’s been transformed in chemical structure and acts like an animal fat. (Some meats and dairy products contain trans fats naturally, but they’re at pretty minimal levels.)

Hydrogenated oils were introduced in the 1970s by food processors when everybody was getting high blood pressure over saturated fats. But, irony of ironies, trans fats turn out to be even worse for us than saturated fats. They raise serum LDL-cholesterol levels (that’s the "bad" cholesterol), a risk factor for coronary heart disease, at rates that can be up to 10 times worse for our hearts than saturated fats.

Manufacturers love hydrogenated oils because they’re cheap, they add flavour (like any fat does) and they don’t go rancid as quickly as unsaturated fats. Everyone loves trans fats for frying and deep-frying because they produce a tasty, crispy outside and tender inside.

Expect further resistance from the manufacturing sector because eliminating trans fats now will be pretty expensive. Frito-Lay has come up with a process to remove trans fats from chips, but it’s going to cost them an additional $30-$40 million US annually to do so, and that’s not including the cost of new equipment.

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