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The Hindu Explains | What are trans fats, and why are they harmful?

Why did the FSSAI introduce new caps on trans fats? What more needs to be done for global elimination?

January 17, 2021 02:00 am | Updated February 15, 2021 02:02 pm IST

The story so far: On December 29, 2020, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) reduced the permissible limit of trans fatty acids (TFA) in oils and fats to 3% for 2021 and 2% by 2022, against the earlier cap of 5% . The decision was effected by an amendment to the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations. The new rules apply to edible refined oils, vanaspati (partially hydrogenated oils), margarine, bakery shortenings, and other cooking media like vegetable fat spreads and mixed fat spreads. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) had called for a global elimination of industrially produced TFAs by 2023 .

What are trans fats and why are they harmful?

All natural fats and oils are a combination of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids or trans fatty acids. Our body needs the first two categories of ‘healthy’ fats as apart from being a major source of energy, they help absorb some vitamins and minerals and build cell membranes and the sheaths surrounding nerves. These fats are free-flowing, unlike saturated fatty acids or trans fats, which are considered harmful as they clog arteries and result in hypertension, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular issues.

Also read | 61% rural consumers in Rajasthan unaware of trans fat hazard, says survey

There are two broad types of trans fats found in foods: naturally-occurring and artificial trans fats. Artificial trans fats, which are considered harmful, are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid, increase their shelf life, and for use as an adulterant as they are cheap. They are present in baked and fried foods as well as adulterated ghee, which becomes solid at room temperature.

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, causing over 1.8 crore deaths every year. The WHO estimates that over 5 lakh people with cardiovascular issues die globally every year due to the consumption of industrially produced TFAs. As per FSSAI, about 77,000 deaths take place annually in India due to TFAs.


How did India and other nations start acting on it?

In 2018, the WHO called for elimination of industrially produced TFAs by 2023, and brought out a step-by step guide called ‘REPLACE’ to help countries frame policies. This prompted accelerated action by member states and other stakeholders. However, threats posed by non-communicable diseases started gaining attention much earlier in the 1980s, following which Denmark became the first country to ban TFAs in 2003. In the next five years, Chile and Switzerland banned TFAs too. During the same period, several U.S. States, such as New York, implemented local bans. In its report in 2020, the WHO said that 58 countries had introduced laws that will protect 3.2 billion people from TFAs by the end of 2021. But more than 100 countries still needed to take action. Last year, 11 of the 15 countries that account for two-thirds of deaths linked to trans fats still needed to act. These were Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Republic of Korea.

Also read | Packaged foods breach safe limits of salt, fat: CSE study

In India, action against trans fats coincided with the setting up of the FSSAI. Though it came into existence in 2006, civil society organisations say that its functioning picked up by 2011-12. It was in 2011 that it imposed a cap of 10% on trans fats in oils and fats in India, which was further revised to 5% in 2015.

What next?

Civil society organisations in India are pushing for a cap of 3% for 2021 and 2% for 2022 to be imposed not just on trans fats in oils and fats, but in “all” foods. According to those engaging with the government on the subject, a regulation for this is likely soon. But a bigger challenge will be implementation, which is a State subject. The FSSAI will need to pursue local governments to improve surveillance, inspection of food premises, sampling of food products, regular training of officers, upgradation of food labs, etc., which are also among concerns raised by a Parliamentary panel on the regulator’s ineffectiveness.

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