According to chemical structure the two broad groups of fats in food are saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Most people are aware that eating too much saturated fat in animal produce is linked to a higher incidence of coronary heart disease. What many people do not realize is that a particular type of manufactured unsaturated fat known as trans fat has an even higher heart attack risk. Because of this the use of trans fats in food production is being phased out and in some countries banned altogether.

Unsaturated fats are defined as such because of their chemical structure and can be further divided into monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fat. These are known as the good fats, monounsaturated for example in olive oil, peanut oil and canola oil and polyunsaturated from oily fish, walnuts and flax seed oil. These natural oils can be chemically altered by a process called hydrogenation. The resulting trans fats have played a significant role in the fast food and prepared food industry because by being liquid at room temperature they are easy to use and they have an extended shelf life. Apart from the recently discovered harmful effects, trans fats also have no known health benefits and health authorities worldwide recommend that consumption be reduced to trace amounts.

That this health scare has originated following the introduction of a type of modified unsaturated plant based fat focuses our attention away from the general view that animal based fats are the only form of fat that is bad for you. Although small quantities of trans fats are present in the milk and body fat of cattle and sheep by far the largest amount of trans fat consumed is created by the processed food industry. Trans fats are used in fast food, fried foods and baking. They have been particularly used for deep-frying in restaurants as they can be used for longer than most conventional oils before turning rancid.

The primary health risk of trans fat consumption is a significantly elevated risk of coronary heart disease. Trans fats appear to substantially increase the risk of heart attacks much more than similar quantities of saturated fat, an effect that is found even at low levels of consumption. For this reason governments in many countries have sought to eliminate trans fats from food outlets. Denmark became the first country in 2003 to ban manufactured hydrogenated oils in food, an act which is predicted to significantly lower the death rate from coronary heart disease in the near future.

Some supermarket chains in the UK have also contributed to the debate by banning trans fat from their own branded foods. Some major food chains have removed or reduced trans fats from their products following media attention or the possibility of legal action. In many parts of the world the food industry’s response to this serious health issue has been patchy. Eating out in restaurants, tucking into fries, snacking on doughnuts, stocking up on cakes and biscuits, all these things will lead to consuming an unacceptable amount of trans fats unless the international trade in food becomes properly regulated.