Goodbye to trans fats - what this means for Canadian consumers

December 10 2018

There is no doubt that Canadians - like consumers in so many countries - have become increasingly aware of the need to eat more healthily. While some countries struggle to feed their populations, others have issues with the things people eat being far too unhealthy. 

Of course, it is easy to look across the border and point the finger at the Americans, who are the fattest nation in the western world, but the problems associated with excess weight, such as heart disease and diabetes, are an issue in Canada too. Fat is a key issue.

The response of policymakers has been to look at the unhealthy things deliberately added to food, and seek to curb them. It is nearly 15 years since MPs voted to ban trans fats from food across Canada, yet this never came into force - until now. 

12,000 lives saved every year

Now that partially hydrogenated oils are on the ‘List of Contaminants and Other Adulterating Substances’, it's time for change in the kitchen. Many would say not before time, as the US recently imposed its own ban.

Restaurants and other food industry providers have certainly had time to prepare, as health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor warned them a year ago that the ban was coming. 

Now it has formally come into place, the fried and baked foods people eat in restaurants across the land, not to mention the pastries, will be much less likely to clog up their arteries and send them to an early grave. 

It is estimated the measure may save 12,000 lives a year.

Manuel Arango, the director of health policy and advocacy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said: "This is a very important milestone in terms of nutrition policy in Canada.

"What it means is that, moving forward, industry will not be able to manufacture or use partially hydrogenated oils that create artificial trans fats in the food supply. It will be completely prohibited in Canada."

How Canadian kitchens must adapt

The question is, how will this change the food being served in Canadian restaurants? Some might imagine that everything will switch to healthy options, as if the age of burgers, fries and maple syrup on dessert is gone and now everything will be lean meat, vegetables and fresh fruit. 

In reality, it is likely everything will be more subtle than that. Food will still be fried in vegetable oil, but it will not be hydrogenated to create trans fats. Quite simply, alternatives will be used that should do little to diminish taste but plenty to reduce the build up of fatty deposits in the arteries. 

Moreover, given that everyone will have known the ban was coming, food manufacturers and restaurants across the land will have been making preparations and many will have already switched to alternative ingredients. 

What it actually could mean is that the kind of foods some people might have avoided because of their high trans-fat content might now be on the menu, so it will expand food choice rather than restricting it. Of course, the key will be ensuring that the recipe still tastes good, or is altered in some other way to compensate for any possible loss of flavour. 

It may be that the latest piece of legislation is just one of many that could change the way Canadians eat out. 

Sugar taxes, particularly on drinks, are one way many believe health could be improved. Such measures have been introduced in Mexico and some US states, as well as in Europe. 

Obesity costs Canada up to $7.1 billion a year

Last year, British chef Jamie Oliver, who successfully campaigned for the tax in the UK, wrote an article for the Globe and Mail calling for Canada to follow suit. He warned: "The cost of obesity and diet-related disease is a true cost in tax to every Canadian - obesity costs Canada between $4.6 billion to $7.1 billion annually in health costs and lost productivity." 

Proponents believe it will cut waistlines and reduce diabetes. Opponents think it is just a cash cow that will bloat prices and make the bill at the end of the evening a little bit higher. But while the topic remains a matter for debate, it may be no surprise if that is also the subject of legislation one day. 

That said, if it takes 15 years for any new law to come into place after parliament votes for it, nobody should hold their breath.