The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s move last month to phase out artificial trans fats over three years from all processed foods has made few ripples in Japan, where there are currently no regulations on the oil.

Health and food safety authorities here said the U.S. move will not affect policies in Japan, since the nation’s average intake of trans fats — contained in everything from margarine to frozen pizzas to cookies — are far smaller than in the U.S. and the threshold set by the World Health Organization.

But some experts have criticized the government’s stance, saying Japan should at least start requiring food manufacturers to display the amount of trans fats on product packages.

Here are some questions and answers on issues surrounding trans fats.

What are trans fats and why is the U.S. banning them?

Trans fats are fatty acids, of which there are basically two types: those naturally found in foods such as beef, and those artificially reformulated from vegetable oil. In the food industry, hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid and spreadable. Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are known to prolong the shelf life of foods and maintain their flavor stability.

The U.S. regulators banned only the PHOs, which have been found to cause heart disease and fatal heart attacks in thousands of Americans every year. PHOs are not “generally recognized as safe,” the FDA says.

The Institute of Medicine has previously determined that no level of PHOs is safe for consumption.

What are the most risky foods?

According to a risk assessment report on trans fats released by the Food Safety Commission of Japan (FSC) in March 2012, margarine, shortening oil, cookies and pies are among the foods containing high levels of trans fats, though amounts vary from product to product.

Levels of the oils in retail margarine products, for example, ranged from 0.9 grams to 12.3 grams per 100 grams, while those for shortening oil ranged from 1.2 grams to 13.6 grams per 100 grams.

Why is Japan not regulating the substance?

Health ministry officials say the levels of intake among average Japanese are far below the safety levels set by the WHO, which recommends that people limit their intake to 1 percent of total calories consumed, or less than 2 grams of trans fat per day.

“Currently, the average consumption of trans fats in Japan is sufficiently lower than the level recommended by the WHO,” health ministry official Tsuyoshi Arai said. “We consider the health effect (of trans fat) on the current Japanese diet is miniscule. We don’t plan on setting specific intake limits in Japan.”

The same 2012 FSC report also says the average current intake among Japanese was only 0.3 percent of all calories consumed in 2004. By age groups, however, children were found to eat more foods containing trans fats, with boys aged 1-6 consuming 0.47 percent, and girls in the same age bracket consuming 0.46 percent.

By comparison, another report compiled by the FSC in 2010 found the average amount consumed in the U.S. in 2005-2006 was 5.3 grams a day, or 2.6 percent of total calories consumed, while people in European countries also consumed high amounts, with their daily intake of trans fat ranging from 1 percent to 2 percent in 2005-2006.

Given the current intake levels, Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency, which is in charge of food labeling, said it is not necessary to force food manufacturers to show the amount of trans fat on their product labels. Requiring product manufacturers to include the information means they will have to pay to have the amount of trans fat analyzed, which could end up pushing up product prices, said Toshitaka Masuda, an official at the agency’s food labeling division.

What about people who like fatty foods?

Some people may be consuming trans fats more than the safety levels.

The 2012 FSC report cites a 2008 study in Japan covering the diet of 25 female students aged around 20 for a week.

While the sample size was small and the duration of the study short, it showed that three of the 25 students consumed about 3 grams of trans fat per day, exceeding the recommended amounts of less than 2 grams.

A study in 2009 covering 1,136 female students aged 18-22 showed their trans fat intake was estimated to be 0.9 percent of total calories consumed, with PHOs accounting for 77 percent of the consumed amount.

Masuda of the consumer agency said that although it’s not mandatory, the agency is asking firms to voluntarily publicize the amount of trans fats contained in their foods.

It is also important, Masuda said, to urge people to have a “balanced” diet, instead of just targeting trans fats, which are among a group of unsaturated fats.

“If we just target unsaturated fat, food producers might replace that with saturated fat,” Masuda said, noting that excessive consumption of saturated fat is just as harmful to people’s health.

Saturated fats are found in such products as butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods and are known to raise “bad” cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Are there calls for regulations?

Koichi Tateishi, a member of the FSC’s food labeling committee, which issued the March 2012 risk assessment report, remains unconvinced that the government thoroughly researched the issue. Tateishi, head of the food quality assurance division at Zen-Noh (the National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations), rebuffed the cost argument, saying many food manufacturers have conducted trans fat analysis in order to export their products.

He cited the example of one chocolate product sold by a Japan-based confectionery maker that contains 3 grams of trans fat per box — more than the daily intake limit. The amount is displayed on their product packages sold in North America and many countries in Southeast Asia, but not in Japan. “It’s wrong not to require disclosure of trans fat information (by) citing low levels of consumption in Japan, when countries such as China and South Korea, whose intake levels are lower than in Japan, have moved to mandatory disclosure,” he said.

What should consumers do?

Terue Kawabata, professor of nutrition at Kagawa Nutrition University in Saitama Prefecture, said that with few companies disclosing information on trans fats in their products, the best consumers can do at the moment is to stay away from processed foods, especially fatty ones.

Since the amount contained varies greatly from brand to brand even within the same product category, avoiding repeated purchases of the same processed food products will dilute the risk, she added. “If you keep changing the brands, the risk of you coming across products with exceptionally high levels of trans fats will be lower,” she said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.