Transfat limit in oils cut

India's food safety regulator has slashed the maximum allowed limit of transfats in cooking oil and fat by half to five per cent in a move that experts are calling an important step to safeguard public health.

By G.S. Mudur
  • Published 3.09.15
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New Delhi, Sept 2: India's food safety regulator has slashed the maximum allowed limit of transfats in cooking oil and fat by half to five per cent in a move that experts are calling an important step to safeguard public health.

But nutrition scientists have cautioned that the government will also need to tweak oilseed crop policies to draw the food processing industry and consumers away from unhealthy but inexpensive transfats to healthier cooking oils.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has set five per cent as the maximum limit for the amount of transfats in hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine and fat spread from the current limit of 10 per cent. The new limit will be applicable from August 2016.

"This is an important move - transfats are responsible in a big way for metabolic disorders," said Anoop Misra, an endocrinologist and former professor of internal medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and now director of the Fortis Centre for Diabetes Obesity and Cholesterol, New Delhi.

Metabolic disorders are precursors to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Transfats, or trans-fatty acids, are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and are found in a variety of popular processed foods, including baked products. They have been used since the 1950s to increase the shelf life and flavour of processed foods.

But medical studies have also linked transfats to coronary artery disease and the US Food and Drug Administration had two years ago made a preliminary determination that transfats are no longer generally recognised as safe.

Public health experts say the FSSAI move is in line with the World Health Organisation's recommendations to replace transfats with polyunsaturated fat to reduce cardiovascular diseases. But they also caution that crop and farming policies may need to be changed to drive this shift.

"Much of the inexpensive cooking oil with transfats is currently made from imported palm oil," said Suparna Ghosh-Jerath, a nutrition scientist at the Public Health Foundation of India, New Delhi, who has analysed policy options to reduce the use of transfats.

"The government needs to reorient crop policies to encourage farmers to locally produce healthier oilseeds such as soya bean or mustard or rice bran - these are already cultivated in India, but not enough, the industry relies on inexpensive imported palm oil," she told this newspaper.

India's vast market for loose processed foods - such as snacks sold by shops and roadside vendors - would require government intervention at the oil production level. "Consumer awareness alone will not help," Ghosh-Jerath said. "When purchasing loose processed food, consumers will look at the quality and the cost - they would prefer to buy an inexpensive crisper and flakier samosa than a soggy-looking samosa cooked in healthier oil."

"The five per cent limit is a step in the right direction - but we should aim to reduce it further to near-zero levels," said Sunita Narain, director general of the non-government Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

A study by the CSE had five years ago found that transfats in several partially hydrogenated vegetable oil brands surveyed were five to 12 times the two per cent maximum standard adopted by Denmark.

The new limit for transfats in cooking oils and fat is expected to lead to a decline in their consumption through processed food. In June this year, the US FDA recognised transfats as unsafe and has given food manufacturers three years to remove them from their products.