Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Trans fats are a killer: Up to 500,000 people die annually around the world from the consequences of eating it. Trans fats raise LDL Cholesterol (or “bad”), the compound that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks and death from heart disease.
Most trans fats come from artificial, industrially produced, partially hydrogenated (PHO) vegetable oils. It is used in many baked foods, frying oils, fried foods, and solidified fats, such as margarine and vegetable ghee. They are inexpensive and extend the shelf life of processed food.
But they have no known health benefits and can easily be replaced with other ingredients to maintain taste and consistency. They do nothing but damage our hearts; basically, they are edible tobacco.
Good news, there is an easy solution
And yet it would be so simple to eliminate them. PHO can easily be replaced with other vegetable oils that are healthier, less expensive and also taste good, such as vegetable oils with high oleic content.
In 2018, the World Health Organization called for eliminating industrially produced trans fat from the global food supply by the end of 2023. Since then, we have supported countries that seek to ban trans fat and replace it with healthier oils.
There are two best practice policy alternatives:
- A national limit of 2 grams of industrially produced trans fat per 100 grams of total fat in all foods.
- National production ban or use of partially hydrogenated oils (a major source of trans fat).
To date, more than 40 countries accounting for more than a third of the world’s population have implemented one of WHO’s best practice policies. Another 17 countries are using less restrictive policies, but are still on a path to implementing recommended best practices.
This is remarkable progress, with an almost sixfold increase in the number of people protected by best practice policies since the initiative was launched.
The results are clear. In Denmark, the first country to eliminate trans fat in 2004, studies show that there have been decrease in mortality from heart disease.
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The global effort is underway
However, time is of the essence if we are to achieve the elimination target by the end of this year.
Many nations are moving in the right direction. For example, the United States has passed a law banning the production and use of partially hydrogenated oils in its food supply.
Increasingly, high-, middle-, and lower-middle-income countries—such as Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Paraguay, the Philippines, and Ukraine—are implementing these policies. Best practice policies are being considered in Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. If passed, Nigeria would be the second and most populous country in Africa to put in place a best practice policy of eliminating trans fat.
However, nine of the 16 countries with the highest estimated proportion of coronary heart disease deaths caused by trans fats still do not have a best practice policy: Australia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and the South. Korea.
Governments play a key role in eliminating trans fat, but to achieve our goal it is essential to engage industry – producers of raw materials and final food products.
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By replacing industrial trans fats with healthier oils and fats in their products, food manufacturers, the food service sector and suppliers of oils and fats can help protect people from the harms of trans fat, even in countries without legislation national. If they so choose, these companies could have an almost unparalleled impact on global health.
Getting rid of trans fat takes all of us
In 2019, the International Food and Beverage Alliance, representing some of the world’s largest food companies, committed to eliminating trans fats from their products by the end of 2023. Recently, one of the world’s largest producers of edible oils, Cargill, committed to the same objective. This is to be praised. WHO is in contact with other manufacturers, who we are encouraging to follow suit.
In addition to action by governments and industry, the work of civil society is also vital. Such an organization, Decide to save livesplays an important role in advocating for the elimination of trans fat and advancing key policy changes in countries.
WHO is leading the global push towards elimination. According to the newly created Validation program for the elimination of trans fatWHO will recognize a country’s successes in implementing best practice policy along with effective monitoring and enforcement.
One of the main priorities of the WHO is that support countries to promote health and prevent disease addressing its root causes in the air people breathe, the conditions in which they live and work and the food they eat. Prevention is not only better than cure, it is cheaper. Therefore, eliminating trans fat is a powerful way to prevent heart disease and the massive costs it causes to individuals, families, and economies in medical treatment and lost productivity.
Food should be a source of health, not a cause of disease. It’s time to banish trans fats to the dustbin of history.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the director general of the World Health Organization. Follow him on Twitter: @DrTedros
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