Denmark: Lower trans fat or go to jail

COPENHAGEN, Denmark - Two years ago, Denmark declared war on artery-clogging oils, making it illegal for any food to have more than 2 percent trans fats. Offenders now face hefty fines — or even prison terms.

The result? Today, hardly anyone notices the difference. The french fries are still crispy. The pastries are still scrumptious. And the fried chicken is still tasty.Denmark’s experience offers a hopeful example for places like Canada and New York City, which are considering setting limits on the dangerous artery-clogging fats.

Trans-fatty acids are typically added as partially hydrogenated oils to processed foods such as cookies, margarine and fast food. They are cheaper to produce than healthier oils — such as canola, corn or olive oil — and give foods a longer shelf life. Producers also argue that removing them from processed foods will change tastes and textures beloved by consumers.

'Tobacco of the nutrition world'
However, trans fats also have been called the tobacco of the nutrition world. They lower good cholesterol while raising bad cholesterol.

Even eating a daily amount that is less than 5 grams of trans fat — the amount found in one piece of fried chicken and a side of french fries — has been linked with a 25 percent increased risk of heart disease.

“No other fat at these low levels of intake, has such harmful effects,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

It is still too early to tell if removing trans fats from food in Denmark has improved the country’s health.

The Danish health ministry reports that cardiovascular disease has fallen by 20 percent in the last five years. However, other countries have reported similar drops in heart disease where smoking has been restricted and where industry has made efforts to improve some foods. In countries that are making no effort to regulate the amount of trans fat in food, such as Hungary and Bulgaria, heart disease rates have continued to climb.

Denmark is the only country to have so sharply limited trans fats, passing a law in 2003 that came into effect in 2004, making it illegal for any food to contain more than 2 percent of trans fat.

Less fast-food guilt
For Danes like Troels Nyborg Andersen, the government’s decision means he feels less guilty about his fast-food habit.

“I know trans fats are bad, but you don’t think about that when you’re hungry,” said the 27-year-old Copenhagen native, chomping a hamburger. “It’s good that the Danish government got rid of trans fats so that I don’t have to worry about it.”

That was the rationale that motivated the trans fat ban.

“We wanted to protect people so that they would not even have to know what trans fat was,” said Dr. Steen Stender, one of the leading Danish experts who lobbied for the anti-trans fat law.

Though obesity rates are rising in Denmark, they are far below those of most countries: just 11 percent of the Danish population was obese in 2005, less than half of Britain’s obesity rate, estimated at 23 percent.

When faced with the prospect of a trans fat ban, industries typically rebel. Other countries in the European Union initially objected to Denmark’s ban, arguing it would be economically unfair since their foods could not be legally imported into Denmark.

Many producers were also concerned about the possible change in texture and taste without the additives.

Pastry crisis
Preserving the delicacy of traditional Danish pastries was a major concern at Copenhagen’s famed La Glace cafe, renowned for its pastries and cakes. When the trans fat law kicked in, its bakers began experimenting.

“There was a bit of a crisis,” admitted Marianne Stagetorn Kolos, La Glace’s owner.

The first attempts were disastrous. The trans fat-free margarines melted too soon, destroying the flakiness of the 81-layered pastries.

“Everything was flat,” Stagetorn said. Luckily, the problem was solved by switching margarine suppliers.

Customers like Anne Petersen haven’t noticed.

The pastries “taste just as good as they always did,” said the 59-year-old sales assistant, who favors the raspberry version. “If it wasn’t for the law, I never would have known that there wasn’t any trans fat.”

Stender and other health experts say Denmark’s trans fat ban should be adopted worldwide.

“There’s no reason it cannot be done elsewhere,” he said, explaining that the food in Denmark is not markedly different from food anywhere else. “If you removed trans fat from the planet, the only people who would feel the difference are the people who sell the trans fat.”

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