In Britain, the doctors of the UK Faculty of Public Health have published a manifesto: an appeal to the government to eliminate artificial trans fats from the British diet. These man-made fats -- sometimes identified on product labels as "hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils" -- are widely used by the food industry, despite their known risk to our health.

The 3,300 British doctors who supported the Appeal that was made public on January 18 emphasize the link between trans fats and an increase in blood levels of "bad" cholesterol, as well as inflammation of the lining of arteries that causes coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and many premature deaths. As Prof. Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, forthrightly stated, "Trans fats raise your risk of having heart disease, and so they can ultimately kill you."

Trans fats are already banned in Denmark, in the city of New York, in California, in Switzerland and in Austria. And like the 3,300 British doctors, the World Health Organization also considers that man-made trans fatty acids should be banned.

My support for a ban is wholehearted. I always suspected that their effects on inflammation could spur cancer growth. Since 2004 evidence has been accumulating that clearly points to a role for trans fatty acids in several types of cancer. For example, the French E3N study directed by Dr. Françoise Clavel-Chapelon of the Inserm-Institut Gustave Roussy,(the largest Cancer Center in Europe) has examined 19,934 women participating in the French education system's heath plan. It has demonstrated that women who have high levels of trans fatty acids in their blood have a risk of developing breast cancer that is almost double that of women with the lowest levels of trans fats [1]. In Holland, a study has shown that trans fats are responsible for more deaths every year in that country than car accidents [2].

We need to act on several fronts. All over the world, we should -- like my British colleagues -- be putting pressure on the food industry to replace trans fats with other substances. This is entirely feasible. The food industry uses these fats because they cost less and because they lengthen the shelf life of foods, but alternatives do exist. In Holland the proportion of trans fats in food over the past ten years has dropped from 6% to 1% [3]. At the same time, we can also change our own behavior. According to a strongly worded report by the French Food Safety Agency [4], we should consume fewer full fat dairy products (naturally rich in trans fatty acids), choose lean meat, and limit our consumption of industrial cookies and baked goods. (Incidentally, many of these industrial baked goods have no real nutritional value). We can also hunt down trans fats on food labels, especially in manufactured products like industrial baked goods and cookies, ready-made French fries and potato chips, margarines, dehydrated soup, industrial cold cuts, vegetable oils, industrial bread and dry biscuits or rusks. Speaking of labels, the phrase that the food industry often uses to refer to trans fats is "hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils". In many countries the law doesn't oblige producers to describe them as "trans fatty acids", or even to stipulate what proportion of trans fats is employed in each product. The government should obligate the food industry to improve its information to consumers.

To avoid trans fatty acids in your diet, what processed products do you avoid? 

[1] Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Jun 1;167(11):1312-20. Epub 2008 Apr 4.
Association between serum trans-monounsaturated fatty acids and breast cancer risk in the E3N-EPIC Study.Chajès V, Thiébaut AC, Rotival M, Gauthier E, Maillard V, Boutron-Ruault MC, Joulin V, Lenoir GM, Clavel-Chapelon F.
[2]    Nationaal_Kompas_Volksgezondheid, Verkeersongevallen. Omvang van het probleem. Verkeersongevallen naar leeftijd en geslacht, 2003-2007. 2004, Public Health Department, Netherlands.
[3] Cost-Effective Strategies for Noncommunicable Diseases, Risk Factors, and Behaviors, Priorities in Health. Dean T. Jamison, Joel G. Breman, Anthony R. Measham, George Alleyne, Mariam Claeson, David B. Evans, Prabhat Jha, Anne Mills, Philip Musgrove, editors
Washington (DC): IBRD/The World Bank; 2006
[4] AFSSA, Risques et bénéfices pour la santé des AG trans apportés par les aliments – recommandations. April 2005. p. 75-77