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Cutting trans-fats from food could save thousands

Artificial fats should be eliminated from junk food to help save tens of thousands of lives, the health watchdog said today.

New guidance issued by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) suggests changes to the way food is produced could dramatically reduce the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease.

But the British food industry has hit out at the guidance, which encourages manufacturers to remove industrially-produced trans fats from their products.

According to Nice, reducing the amount of salt and saturated fat in food could save some 40,000 lives each year.

The organisation has set out a series of measures designed to make it easier for people to live a healthier lifestyle.

It is now encouraging local authorities to restrict planning permission for fast food outlets near schools while advocating tighter regulation of the way food is marketed to children, with a possible 9pm television watershed.

The Nice guidelines also recommend selling foods low in salt and saturated fat more cheaply, with possible subsidies.

If necessary, the Government should "consider supportive legislation", it said.

Video: Healthy diet could save lives

Other suggestions included establishing the "traffic light" food labelling system as the national standard.

Julian Hunt, of the Food and Drink Federation, said: "We are surprised that Nice has found the time and the money to develop guidance that seems to be out of touch with the reality of what has been happening for many years.

"The food industry is leading the world when it comes to voluntarily changing the recipes of popular food brands so that they are lower in salt, fat or sugar; introducing better-for-you choices at the same price as standard lines; and improving the quality of nutrition information available on packs."

According to Nice, such changes could cut the "huge numbers of unnecessary deaths" from heart disease and stroke and save millions of pounds each year.

Nearly six million people in the UK are currently living with the disabling effects of cardiovascular disease, putting "substantial" strain on the NHS.

Some 40,000 people are killed by the condition each year.

Experts said reducing saturated fats and removing trans fats, which have been declared toxic by the World Health Organisation, could save more than 20,000 lives.

And they said reducing daily salt intake by 3g to a maximum level of 6g per day for adults by 2015 would result in 15,000-20,000 fewer deaths.

Professor Mike Kelly, public health director at Nice, said the guidance aimed to reduce the "terrible toll of ill health".

"This isn't about telling individuals to choose salad instead of chips - it's about making sure that the chips we all enjoy occasionally are as healthy as possible," he said.

"That means making further reductions in the salt, trans fats and saturated fats in the food we eat every day."

Professor Klim McPherson, chair of the Nice Guidance Development Group and professor of epidemiology at Oxford University, stressed the importance of addressing the issue among children and young people.

He added: "Where food is concerned, we want the healthy choice to be the easy choice.

"Going even further, we want the healthy choice to be the less expensive, more attractive choice."

Professor Simon Capewell, vice chair of the guidance group and public health physician, said there had been "encouraging progress" in reducing the levels of salt and saturated fat in food but insisted the rate of change should be "speeded up urgently".

"The benefits of doing this will be seen remarkably quickly, within two to three years, along with corresponding savings to the NHS," he said.

And he insisted most consumers do not notice a difference in taste if salt levels are reduced by 5%-10% a year because their tastebuds adjust.

Paul Lincoln, guidance developer and chief executive of the National Heart Forum, said: "We want to see the next generation growing up largely free from potentially avoidable conditions such as heart disease and stroke, which have a devastating impact on our society.

"We have the public health evidence on how to virtually eliminate these conditions, so it's vital to take action now to save lives."

According to Nice, this is the first time all the evidence has been brought together to illustrate the link between changes to food production and public health.