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Food and Nutrition

General Questions and Answers on Trans Fat

Question 1: What are trans fats?

Fats in foods are made up of four different types of fatty acids - polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans. Trans fats are found naturally at low levels in some animal-based foods, but can also be formed when liquid oils are made into semi-solid fats like shortening and hard margarine.

Question 2: Where do trans fats come from?

Small amounts of trans fat (generally 2-5% of the fat content) are naturally present in foods such as dairy products, beef and lamb. Some liquid vegetable oils such as canola and soybean, and fish oils, can also contain small amounts of trans fats, which can be formed during the commercial refinement of these oils. These oils may contain up to 2.5% trans fatty acids, but are also important sources of the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Trans fats can also be formed when manufacturers use a chemical process that turns liquid oil into a semi-solid form, like shortening and margarines. The process is referred to as "partial hydrogenation." Fats and oils that are solid or semi-solid at room temperature have advantages for food production. They are more stable and break down less easily under conditions of high temperature heating. These properties make them better for frying. Products made with these fats also have a longer shelf life than if made with liquid oils.

Question 3: Why are trans fats a health concern?

Science shows that consuming either saturated or trans fat raises the blood levels of the so-called 'bad' cholesterol (serum LDL-cholesterol). LDL-cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. In addition to raising 'bad' cholesterol, trans fat also reduces the blood levels of the so-called 'good' cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol). HDL-cholesterol protects against heart disease.

Question 4: What about other fats?

While consuming too much fat should be avoided and certain types of fat are unhealthy, fat is an important part of a healthy diet. Fat in the diet allows the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, and E. While saturated and trans fat tend to increase the risk of heart disease, monounsaturated fat and omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats generally lower the risk of heart disease. Oils high in monounsaturates are olive oil and canola oil. Omega-6 polyunsaturates are highest in vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower and soybean oils; and omega-3 polyunsaturates are highest in vegetable oils such as canola and soybean oils, as well as in fish oils.

Question 5: What is the situation in Canada?

Canadians' consumption of trans fats has declined by 40 per cent over the past decade (from 8.4 g per day to 4.9 g). While encouraging, we are continuing to work with industry and other stakeholders to address this very important health issue.

Analyses carried out by Health Canada during the past three years have shown that most major food manufacturers and some fast food and restaurant establishments have successfully switched from using partially hydrogenated oils to non-hydrogenated oils (i.e. oils containing little or no trans fats) in the preparation of food products. Some of the food products that now meet the limits established in June 2006 by the Trans Fat Task Force, a multi-stakeholder group, include infant foods, soft margarines, french fries, potato chips, and corn chips.

Question 6: How much trans fat is too much?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the total amount of trans fats consumed per day should be less than 1% of your daily energy intake.

The Trans Fat Task Force was formed to develop recommendations and strategies for reducing trans fats in Canadian foods to the lowest level possible. While many foods do not contain trans fat, the Task Force determined that by limiting trans fat in oils to 2% of the total fat and to 5% in all other foods, the total trans fat intake of Canadians would be reduced to below the WHO recommendation.

Question 7: What has the department done to reduce trans fat levels in Canada?

Canada was the first country to require that the levels of trans fat in pre-packaged food be included on the mandatory Nutrition Facts Table. New nutrition labelling regulations, that became mandatory for pre-packaged foods on December 12, 2007, require that Calories and the content of 13 core nutrients, including trans fat, be listed in the Nutrition Facts Table. This requirement, along with the recommendations of the Trans Fat Task Force, is clearly having the desired effect on the manufacturing industry - many companies have already taken action to reduce or even eliminate trans fat in their products.

As part of a national public awareness campaign on healthy eating, the recently revised Canada's Food Guide also contains explicit recommendations to limit trans fat and saturated fat in your diet.

Question 8: What is being done to meet the limits recommended by the Task Force and adopted by Health Canada?

Health Canada announced on June 20, 2007 that it has adopted the recommendations of the Trans Fat Task Force to limit the amount of trans fats in foods. Recognizing the significant progress that has already been made in reducing trans fats in the Canadian food supply, Health Canada has given industry a two-year window to reduce trans fats to the recommended levels. The Department will closely monitor the efforts of industry to ensure that significant progress has been made to achieve these limits. The Trans Fat Monitoring Program data is posted on Health Canada's website. The results from the fourth set of monitoring data, dated July 2009, are now available. The monitoring program will continue over the year and the data will be posted as it becomes available, approximately every 6 months.

Technical Questions and Answers about Trans Fats:

Question 1: How are trans fat defined?

Trans fats or trans fatty acids are chemically defined as fatty acids containing a carbon carbon double bond in the fatty acid chain in the "trans" position. In other words, the hydrogen molecules are on opposite sides of the of the carbon carbon double bond.

In Canada, the Food and Drug Regulations define trans fats as "unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated or non-conjugated double bonds in a trans-configuration".

Question 2: What does the term hydrogenated mean?

The term hydrogenated comes from the term hydrogenation which is a chemical process where hydrogen is added to the carbon-carbon double bonds of unsaturated fats. The process results in the saturation of the carbon atoms of the double bonds, meaning that each carbon atom has four other atoms attached to it.

Question 3: What is the difference between partial hydrogenation and full hydrogenation?

Oils can undergo partial and/or full hydrogenation to convert the liquid oil into a semi-solid or solid fat. When certain oils such as vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated, some of the naturally occurring cis double bonds are converted to trans double bonds. As such trans fats are produced. When oils are fully hydrogenated saturated fats are produced.

Question 4: In the ingredient list there is a "hydrogenated" oil listed, but in the Nutrition Facts table, the trans fat content is listed as "0g" per serving?

The declaration of a "hydrogenated" oil in the list of ingredients can refer to either a partially hydrogenated or a fully hydrogenated oil. Thus the term "hydrogenated" appearing in the ingredient list may or may not be indicating the presence of trans fats in the food product.

Alternatively, the amount of the "hydrogenated" oil present in the food product could be very small. In this case, the amount of trans fats can be labelled as "0 g" in the Nutrition Facts Table and the product may be labelled as "trans-fat free" if the following conditions are met:

The food:

  1. contains less than 0.2 g of trans fat per
    1. reference amount and serving of stated size, or
    2. serving of stated size, if the food is a prepackaged meal; and
  2. meets the conditions set out for "low in saturated fats".

The conditions set out for "low in saturated fats" state that:

  1. The food contains 2 g or less of saturated fat and trans fat combined per
    1. reference amount and serving of stated size; or
    2. 100 g, if the food is a prepackaged meal.
  2. The food provides 15% or less energy from the sum of saturated fat and trans fats.