Survey shows high levels in many Nunavik residents

Nunavik ponders ban on trans fats foods


Nunavik may ask Ottawa to ban or limit trans fats in foods, said Minnie Grey, a long-time member of Nunavik's nutrition and health committee.

But first, Grey wants consumers and retailers to receive more information about trans fats, so they can switch on their own to healthier products that are already available.

"People in this day and age eat empty calories, " Grey said. "They think whatever they're eating is good, but it's not."

Trans fats are liquid oils that have been hydrogenated or solidified. This allows baked or processed southern foods to keep their freshness longer and survive the long trip north.

Once in the body, however, trans fats clog arteries, raise harmful cholesterol levels and contribute to many health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

Most store shelves in Nunavik, as elsewhere in the North, are full of trans fat-rich, processed foods such as potato chips, French fries, chicken nuggets, microwave meals and pastries.

Food ingredient labels that list shortening, vegetable shortening, hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil mean trans fats are among the ingredients.

Some trans fat are naturally found in foods, but majority of trans fat are industrially produced.

Fast foods – and especially fried foods – contain large amounts of trans fats.

Poutine, a combination of French fries, sauce and cheese curds, is loaded with trans fats from the frying oil and sauce.

People are supposed to eat no more two to 2.5 grams of trans fat per day, but a small-sized portion of poutine made with hydrogenated oils contains about 11 grams of trans fat.

Starting this summer, the Kuujjuaq Inn will switch to trans fat-free oil in all its frying, says chef Samuel Hamel-Ratté, even though it will cost twice as much to buy the 250 buckets of shortening used by the restaurant's kitchen every year.

This move is likely a step in the right direction, because recent studies show alarmingly high levels of trans fat in the blood of Nunavimmiut.

Blood samples collected during Nunavik's Qanuippitaa health survey in 2004 showed high levels of trans fats in the blood of the 888 Nunavimmiut, who agreed to participate in the separate trans fat study.

The levels of trans fat in their blood were three times higher than found among 524 Greenlandic Inuit from Ilulissat.

Public health researcher Émilie Counil says the difference in trans fat levels between Inuit in Nunavik and Greenland is due to Denmark's ban on trans fat in store-bought foods.

In 2003, Denmark, which supplies most store-bought food to Greenland, imposed a strict limit of two percent on how much trans fat industrially-produced foods may contain.

"Our results point to the importance for the entire circumpolar world to follow the example of Denmark and Greenland," says a research paper, called "Trans-polar-fat: all Inuit are not equal," published last month in the British Journal of Nutrition.

Canada has no a similar law to regulate trans fats. There are only mandatory labeling requirements and recommendations that food producers limit trans fat levels to five per cent of the total fat content.

Changes to Canada's food and drugs regulations could be used to reduce or ban trans fats, but this would raise costs for industry which would have to change its manufacturing processes.

A recent pilot project looked at the feasibility of eliminating sources of trans fats in Akulivik and Kuujjuaq.

This project, under Quebec's public health research unit and the regional nutrition and health committee, suggested alternative, trans fats-free products to stores and restaurant. The project also produced information for consumers about how they can avoid choosing foods with trans fats.

As many trans fat-free products are more expensive, the job of voluntarily encouraging stores, restaurants and consumers to change their habits may be tough.

But if Nunavik manages to limit the amount of trans fats coming into the region, the results may already appear in 2011, when another health survey, similar to the Qanuippitaa survey, is planned for Nunavik.

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