Trans fatty acids in food, new EU limits


Nutritional safety of food is considered, at least once, by the outgoing European Commission. Thanks to Regulation (EU) 2019/649, which introduces limits on the presence of trans fatty acids in food.

Trans fatty acids, natural and artificial

Transfatty acids(trans-fatty acids, TFA) are defined as ‘fatty acids with at least one unconjugated carbon-carbon double bond (i.e., interrupted by at least one methylene group) in the trans configuration.’ (1) They can be distinguished into natural and artificial.

Natural TFAs are present in milk and meat of ruminants as a result of bacterial transformation of unsaturated fatty acids in the first stomach (rumen) of cattle, sheep and goats.

Artificial TFAs, on the other hand, are developed by some industrial transformation processes:

– Partial hydrogenation of fats (a process used to transform liquid fats into semi-liquids and solids). Therefore, they are found in margarines and various other products, especially baked goods (e.g., cookies, cakes, snacks), that state ‘(partially) hydrogenated oils‘ or ‘(partially) hydrogenated fats.’

– deodorization (a necessary step in refining) of unsaturated vegetable oils (occasionally, even fish oils) high inpolyunsaturated fattyacids ( PUFAs),

– heating and frying oils at extreme temperatures (>220 °C). In direct proportion to cooking time, the amount of trans-fat increases.

Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease

The European Commission, on 3.12.15, adopted a report to the European Parliament and the Council regarding trans fatty acids in foods and in the general diet of the Union population.

Coronary heart disease
constitute the leading cause of death in the Union, and the intake of high levels of trans trans acids significantly increases the risk of developing these diseases, more than any other nutrient on a calorie basis‘ (EU reg. 2019/649, Recital 3)

The ‘
Joint Research Center
‘ (JRC) of the European Commission contributed to the report by offering a series of studies on the presence of TFA in the foods and diets of the European population, as well as the possible impact of different policy options to reduce its intake.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on 19.6.18 forwarded its conclusion in the form of technical and scientific assistance. Following its review of the available scientific evidence, also taking into account the latest national and international recommendations, the Authority concluded that the dietary intake of trans fatty acids should be ‘as low as possible. (2)

Study data
of controlled interventions show that consumption of diets containing TFA has adverse effects on blood lipids that predict an increased risk of coronary-heart disease (CHD) compared with consumption of diets containing cis-monounsaturated fatty acids or cis-polyunsaturated fatty acids, and that the effect is dose-dependent. Prospective cohort studies have shown a significant association between higher TFA intake and increased risk of CHD. The consistency of the evidence from these two types of studies provided strong support for the conclusion that TFA intake has a linear dose-dependent effect that increases the risk of CHD compared with dietary intake of other fatty acids. Available evidence is insufficient to determine whether there is a difference between industrial and ruminant TFA consumed in equivalent amounts on blood lipid profile and/or CHD risk.’ (EFSA, 19.6.18)

The World Health Organization on 5/15/18 recommended the elimination of artificial TFAs from the global food chain. (3) The elimination of industrially produced trans fats was identified as one of the priority goals of the WHO strategic plan, in the 13thGeneral Programme of Work (GPW13) for 2019-2023.

Eliminating trans fats is the key to protecting health and saving lives: WHO estimates that trans fat intake leads to more than 500,000 deaths of people with cardiovascular disease each year‘ (WHO, 14.5.18).

Trans fatty acids, Regulation (EU) 2019/649

Regulation (EU) no. 2019/649, ‘Amending Annex III of Regulation (EC) No. 1925/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council as regards trans fatty acids other than trans fatty acids naturally occurring in animal fats‘, was adopted by the European Commission on 24.4.19. (4)

The content of artificial trans fatty acids (i.e., excluding TFAs naturally occurring in animal fats) in foods intended for the final consumer and in foods intended for the retail trade ‘shall not exceed 2 grams per 100 grams of fat‘ (Article 1).

Food business operators Who supply food not intended for the final consumer or not intended for retail trade (5) to other food business operators shall ensure that they are provided with information on the amount of trans fatty acids, other than the trans fatty acids naturally present in animal fats, when this amount exceeds 2 grams per 100 grams of fat‘ (Article 2).

The transitional period is far-reaching, as non-compliant foods can still continue to be placed on the market until 1.4.21.

TFA, transparency denied

The paradox is that European consumers cannot in any case be told the amount of trans fatty acids contained in individual food products. Although this amount may indeed vary, even among similar products, depending on the technologies used (for example, in the hydrogenation of vegetable oils or in frying temperatures and times).

The ‘
Food Information Regulation
‘ has in fact ruled out the possibility of mentioning the trans fat content in the nutrition declaration, which was once allowed as an optional item. (6) And this is, among other things, one of the main causes of incompatibility of European labels with those to be prepared for export in the main destination markets of our products. Where, on the other hand, TFAs, as appropriate, are mandatory or required in ‘nutrition claims’ scenarios. But transparency and simplification of bureaucratic burdens, as is well known, are not at home in Brussels.

Dario Dongo


(1) See reg. EU 1169/11, Annex I, points 2 and 3

(2) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2018). ‘Scientific and technical assistance on trans fatty acids‘. doi:10.2903/sp.efsa.2018.EN-1433,

(3) WHO ,

(4) Cf. reg. EU 2019/649

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(5) By express reference to reg. EC 178/02, is defined as ‘“Retail trade” means the handling and/or processing of food and its storage at the point of sale or delivery to the final consumer, including distribution terminals, food service establishments, corporate and institutional canteens, restaurants and other similar food service facilities, stores, supermarket distribution centers, and wholesale outlets‘ (Art. 3.7)

(6) The European Commission had been delegated to submit a report on whether the item ‘trans fatty acids’ should be introduced in the mandatory nutrition declaration (see EU Reg. 1169/11, Article 30.7). But the issue was dismissed simplistically, in the 3.12.15 report. As can be read on page 12 of COM (2015) 609


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