updated 9/7/2004 5:57:25 PM ET 2004-09-07T21:57:25

Europeans eat less of the most dangerous, cholesterol-raising fats than Americans do and the amount is decreasing, according to a report released Wednesday by the European Food Safety Authority.

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Scientists at the European Food Safety authority declined to say whether the EU should follow the United States' lead and require special labels on margarine, chips, cookies, fries and other potential sources of trans fatty acids.

"These are almost political decisions," said agency executive director Geoffrey Podger. "There are a variety of societal factors about when you decide to label."

Some trans fats occur naturally in beef, lamb and dairy products. But most are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil to create solid margarine or shortening.

Both trans fat and saturated fats, which are prevalent in meat, raise blood levels of bad cholesterol. But trans fats also reduce levels of good cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease even more. It also increases blood levels of triglycerides, the chemical form in which most fat exists in food as well as in the body.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this year ordered food manufacturers to list trans fat alongside saturated fats on product labels, starting Jan. 1, 2006.

As the U.S. obesity problem spreads to Europe, calls have been raised for companies here to follow suit.

Some manufacturers have already reformulated products, Frito-Lay has removed trans fats from its Doritos and Cheetos, but others say they are struggling to eliminate them from classics, such as Kraft's Oreos or McDonald's fries, without affecting taste.

Denmark halts use of artificial trans fat
In the boldest move, Denmark last year ordered a virtual end to the use of artificial trans fats in processed foods, with then-Food Minister Mariann Fischer Boel, soon to be the EU's agriculture commissioner, urging other EU countries to do the same.

That forced McDonald's Denmark, for example, to switch oils for its fries, even though the company has yet to do so elsewhere, said spokesman Kristian Madsen.

"We have had to get used to it," he said, adding that the new oil degrades faster and is probably higher in saturated fats.

Dr. Steen Stender, a cardiologist with the Danish Nutrition Council who pushed for the Danish law, conceded the trade-off but said trans fats were "much more" dangerous per gram than saturated fats and should be avoided as much as possible.

"There is no reason for having this extra risk for heart disease," he said. "It can be removed without anyone suffering from any lack of quality of life."

An EU study in the mid-1990s found trans fats accounted for about 0.5 to 2 percent of daily calories for Europeans. That compares with an estimated 2.6 percent for Americans, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Mediterranean countries were at the lowest end of the scale, reflecting their use of olive and other vegetable oils rather than spreads, said Albert Flynn, a professor at Ireland's University College Cork, who chaired the scientific panel.

But even in northern countries like Iceland, Denmark and Finland, more recent studies show intake levels decreasing, mainly because margarine makers are reformulating their products, he said.

On the other hand, saturated fats comprised 10.5 to 18 percent of calories consumed in Europe, the EU study found, compared to the U.S. FDA estimate of about 10 to 13 percent for Americans.

The recommended level for calories from saturated fat is maximum 10 percent, but "very few countries come close to that," Flynn said.

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