Current Brazilian legislation is insufficient to inform consumers about trans fats content in foods: Study

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / firebrandphotography
© Getty Images / firebrandphotography
Trans fats may be present in almost 20% of Brazilian packaged foods and beverages, despite most of them not reporting the presence of the controversial ingredient in the ingredient deck or on the nutrition facts panel, says a new study.

Analysis of 11,434 products revealed that 18.7% presented a source of trans fats in the list of ingredients, with scientists from the University of Sao Paulo, University of Campinas, and the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense calling for measures to further restrict the use of trans fats and to improve nutritional labeling.

“In the case of trans fats, which are proven to cause significant health damage, the discussion on regulation must advance towards the restriction of industrial use,” ​they wrote in the journal Nutrients. “Trans fat limits should be imposed from the raw material used in the food industry, and no oils or fats with a high content of trans fats should be available to be used in Brazilian food products. This measure could benefit the entire population and aid inspection by competent agents.

“We believe our paper contributes to advancing the topic on the use of trans fats in Brazil and could be used to inform policymakers who are discussing the new regulation in the country, and also as a source of information for media and the general public about the products available in our supermarkets, aiming to increase public awareness of the need for policy options that supports better food environments.”

The issue

Trans fats – or partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) – were attractive for the food industry due to their extended shelf life and flavor stability, and they displaced natural solid fats and liquid oils in many areas of food processing.

However, scientific evidence mounted to show they raise levels of LDL (so-called ‘bad’) cholesterol, while lowering levels of HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, thereby clogging arteries and causing heart disease.

Regulatory agencies around the world subsequently took action against the ingredients. For example, in 2015, the US FDA revoked the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status​ of trans fats after “extensive research into the effects of PHOs, as well as input from stakeholders during the public comment period”​.

In Latin America, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) supported the Trans Fat Free Americas Declaration (2008) called for standardized and mandatory labeling of trans fat across the Americas, and when possible, replacement with unsaturated fats.

While ANVISA introduced mandatory labeling of trans fats on nutrition facts panels, the Brazilian population still exceeds limits proposed by WHO. This is linked what the authors described as a lack of clarity in the current legislations, which allow for significant variations in nutrient contents, portion sizes, and so on.

Study details

The new study found that, for the almost 11,500 products analyzed, that 4.1% and 14.6% had either specific (hydrogenated fats or oils) and unspecific trans fat terms (margarine, vegetable fat, and vegetable cream) in the ingredient list.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest percentage of trans fats claims were found in bakery products, cookies and crackers, candies and desserts, snacks, and convenience foods.

“Implementing policies that aim to restrict trans fats in the food supply results in the need for product reformulation, and the employed substitutes can be concerning as trans fats could be replaced with saturated fats to maintain the required or preferred solid fat content,” ​wrote the researchers.

“Although any measure adopted to remove industrial trans fats would be expected to produce health benefits, WHO recommends the use of mono- and polyunsaturated fats as a replacement for trans fats rather than using animal fats and tropical oils that are high in saturated fat. We suggest that the use of other industrially-produced fats, as inter-esterified fats, should be considered with caution because their health effects are not clear.”

Source: Nutrients
2019, 11​(9), 2130; doi: 10.3390/nu11092130
“Trans Fat Labeling Information on Brazilian Packaged Foods”
Authors: C.Z. Ricardo et al.

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