By ALEX RENTON
Monday, 29 July 2013
They were supposed to have been banished from the shelves, but lethal fats are STILL lurking in your weekly shopping.
By ALEX RENTON
The shopping bag is tipped out on to the kitchen table and it's every parent's nightmare.
Contained in the food that tumbles out are enough artificial additives to make any nutritionist feel ill.
And, most shockingly, every one of the labels on the packets - bought in major High Street shops - contains an ingredient I have investigated over the years, and hoped I would never see again: 'hydrogenated vegetable oil'.
Better known as trans fats.
No substance quite so toxic has been used with such reckless abandon by the food industry - one which has always been notorious for taking risks with our health in search of greater profit.
What's particularly sickening is that trans fats - oils treated with high temperature - are used not because they add any pleasure or nutritional benefit, but because they are cheap and can make a 'fresh' product last many months on shop shelves.
Effectively, for consumers, it's like eating candle wax - despite years of evidence of the damage that trans fats can do.
They can't be broken down in the digestive system so accumulate and clog up arteries.
They are more dangerous than even the worst naturally-occurring saturated fat. In fact, nutrition experts say they are more dangerous than the butter they replaced.
Just three years ago, a shopper could not avoid them. They appeared in everything from posh ice creams to Linda McCartney's range of vegetarian sausages.
Nearly every snack bar and many sweets had 'hydrogenated vegetable oil' in them, as did stuffing mixes, Sainsbury's frozen fish, margarine, pizzas, many ready meals, cakes, and even children's cereals such as Nestle's Cheerios.
Fish'n'chip shops and fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and KFC used them for frying.
But, after warnings from heart disease doctors and campaigns in this newspaper and others, the food industry started voluntarily phasing out trans fats.
Many major food stores, including Sainsbury's, stopped using them.
The Labour government said regulation was unnecessary, even though evidence was mounting of trans fats' role in complaints including cancer, multiple scelerosis, strokes, obesity and weight problems in newborns.
Only last week, the Government's watchdog the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) called for a ban on trans fats, such as those already in place in Denmark and New York city.
Some 40,000 deaths a year could be avoided, stated NICE, if trans fats and some other substances in processed food were reduced.
The Consumers' Association has estimated that a ban on trans fats could reduce UK deaths from heart disease by 25 per cent.
Yet now, the Government has announced that it will not ban them or make manufacturers flag them up on food labels.
And this certainly isn't because food companies have cleaned up their act. Just half an hour spent in corner shops and popular supermarket chains - including Lidl, the Co-op and Morrison's - around my home in Edinburgh and I quickly filled a shopping bag with goods that still contain the lethal fats.
I bought an apple pie, chocolate biscuits, brightly-coloured tarts aimed at children and a popular cream substitute, Elmlea, made by Unilever. All contained hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
These are the innocent-sounding descriptions British producers and retailers use on their labels to indicate trans fats.
Ironically, Lidl is running a campaign to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, one of the major charity campaigners calling for a ban on trans fats.
Britain's biggest supermarket, Tesco, announced four years ago that none of its own-brand products would contain trans fats.
Yet at hundreds of its stores you can buy Krispy Kreme doughnuts that contain what campaigners say are dangerous and unnecessary levels of them.
Even a plain Krispy Kreme, with no filling or decoration, uses half a gram per doughnut - the level of trans fats that NICE deems unhealthy, and which would be illegal in Denmark.
My research showed up even more worrying evidence that the Government's voluntary phasing-out scheme is utterly inadequate.
Though fast-food chains have vastly cut the proportion of trans fats in their deepfryers, it's widely believed that tens of thousands of smaller takeaway shops have made no changes.
I visited half a dozen near my home and not one could tell me what they were frying their chips in, though most told me the oil was vegetable, and healthy.
None of the staff had heard of trans fats. When I asked to see the containers the frying oil came in, to check the labels, none of the chefs could or would produce them.
And since hydrogenation makes oils so easy to sieve clean, some shops only change the contents of their deep-fryers every three months.
It's thought that those most at risk from trans fats are people eating deep-fried takeaway food regularly.
The history of trans fats begins in the 19th century, when chemists found that if you heated oils normally liquid at room temperature, and treated them with hydrogen, when they cooled they would be solid.
This was useful for soap and candle manufacturers. And one of these, Procter & Gamble, first realised the process could be used for food.
In 1911, the company introduced a hard cooking fat, Crisco, using unwanted cotton seeds. It was an instant hit: cheaper than the pig's lard it replaced and edible for two years, even at room temperature.
A replacement for butter followed: margarine. Oils were hydrogenated to remain solid at room temperature but melt in the mouth. And they cost about a sixth as much.
In Britain, most oils and fats were hydrogenated by the Sixties. And they could be
made from almost any oil at all: any Briton over 50 almost certainly ate margarine made from whale oil, though it never said that on the packet.
But as early as the Eighties doctors were questioning trans fats.
In 2003, Denmark outlawed them and at the same time the Government's Food Standards Agency announced: 'The trans fats found in food containing hydrogenated vegetable oil are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits. They raise the type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease.'
Legislation was ruled out when the industry promised to reform. Even though it's clear that voluntary reform has been utterly inadequate - especially in the catering industry, which doesn't have to declare its ingredients - the resistance continues.
My shopping bag made my wife grimace. 'Are you going to eat that rubbish?' she asked.
But my children, aged five and 11, were already pestering me for 'just one teacake'!
Teacake? It was actually a chunk of marshmallow coated in chocolate on a little biscuit.
I bought the packet of five Bradford's teacakes in Morrison's supermarket for a mere 39p.
The ingredients list was 17 items long, including hydrogenated palm and rape oil.
Another trans fat offender found in Morrison's confectionery aisle was a tub of Lees' luxury mint snowballs for £1.60.
In the budget chain Poundstretcher I found packets of chocolate biscuits, called Viscount (they're also sold at Co-op) and Choco Leinz, at 99p each. Trans fats in every bite.
The same was true of a Danish apple cake, made by the Coronet brand of Denmark, bought in a corner shop for £1.29. This was labelled in Russian and English - it would not be legal to sell it in Denmark.
In another corner shop I found a Lees' Original Macaroon bar for 40p. At Lidl there were Morton's Pineapple Tarts, Empire Biscuits and Raspberry Tarts, all 99p for packs of four. All containing trans fats.
I'd love to be able to tell you the levels each product contained, but manufacturers are required only to state the total levels of all fats and saturated fats in the nutrition guidelines.
In the ingredients' list they merely have to state if some of these fats are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated; of course it's those words that indicate if you're eating trans fats.
One product that does break down the detail is Elmlea, a cream substitute that boasts '33 per cent less fat than double cream'. But it's in such small type I needed reading glasses to decipher it.
Eventually, I found that Elmlea has nearly 100 per cent more trans fats than double cream (there are less than 2 per cent naturally occurring trans fats in double cream, and they are not deemed harmful): 26 per cent of the product is hydrogenated vegetable oil.
The levels permitted in Denmark are just 2 per cent of total oils.
Elmlea is made by a company that should know better: Unilever.
Indeed, on its website, the multinational says: 'We removed trans fats from our margarines in Europe as far back as 1996 and have continued to minimise the level of these in all our recipes.'
But, on the page for Elmlea, there's no mention of the hydrogenated vegetable oils that appear on the label.
I rang the Elmlea helpline and asked what the hydrogenated vegetable oils are.
'It's just oil that's been treated with hydrogen to make it more thick,' said a helpline worker. Is that dangerous? 'I couldn't possibly comment,' he replied.
'But that's trans fats,' I said. After consulting company literature, he said: 'All Elmlea product contain less than 1.2 per cent trans fats.'
There was a similar response from Krispy Kreme doughnuts. 'Are there trans fats in them?' I asked the customer care lady.
'They do sort of, I won't lie to you,' she said cheerily. 'The level is so minimal it could be labelled zero in the U.S..'
In fact, the level is around 2 per cent of the total fats - a threshold the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has said is, as a part of daily energy intake, 'associated with a 23 per cent increase in the incidence of coronary heart disease'.
Oliver Tickell, a long-term campaigner against trans fats through his website tfX, points out labelling law is open to abuse.
'You should be careful in "value" supermarkets, because the products conform to the standards of the countries from which they are imported, which may not be as rigorous as British rules,' he says.
There's never been a recorded prosecution of a food manufacturer over mis-leading fat labelling in this country. In the U.S., at least, you have to state clearly if trans fats are present.
How long, though, can the big corporations hold out on trans fats? According to two Harvard professors in the BMJ, just 1 per cent less trans fats in our diet would prevent 7,000 deaths a year in England from trans fats.
This is not a story like alcohol or cigarettes, which people may choose to consume even though they are aware of the well-publicised risks.
The truth is that the current labelling on trans fats does not work. People are in the dark. In ruling out any change in the law, the Government is letting us risk our lives through ignorance.