Trans fats cause approximately 500,000 premature deaths yearly. Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) wants to completely eliminate them from our diets and they’ve released a detailed, step-by-step plan for doing so. It’s the first time global health officials have asked countries to completely remove an ingredient from food production.

Trans fats are primarily used in fried foods like fries and doughnuts as well as in baked goods such as cakes, pies, biscuits, pizza, and cookies.

Trans fats occur in small amounts in nature. However, they’ve become widely produced by industry to create vegetable fats for use in margarine, snack food, packaged baked goods, and frying fast food. Natural trans fats are only produced in small quantities in the gut of some animals, while artificial trans fats are much more common and are created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Foodmakers prefer these fats because they prolong the shelf life of oils.

Decades of studies have consistently shown that trans fats cause coronary artery disease, and some countries have already started to ban them. Denmark became the first country to completely eliminate them in 2004. Since then, several countries have followed suit, including the US. In the developed parts of the world, trans fats are becoming rarer and rarer.

However, many countries, especially those in developing and underdeveloped areas, have not followed this trend. Oils containing trans fats are cheap, easy to produce, and often taste pretty good, therefore keeping them popular in lower-income countries — which is why the WHO is pushing this plan and asking governments to phase out trans fats within five years.

“It’s a crisis level, and it’s a major front in our fight now,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva on Monday.

“Why should our children have such an unsafe ingredient in their foods?” asked Dr Tedros. “The world is now embarking on the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, using it as a driver for improved access to healthy food and nutrition. WHO is also using this milestone to work with governments, the food industry, academia and civil society to make food systems healthier for future generations, including by eliminating industrially-produced trans fats.”

The feeling of urgency was echoed by scientists and medics all around the world.

“Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed.”

Trans fats are finding their way onto too many plates, and they need to be eliminated — ischemic heart disease and cerebrovascular disease have become first and second causes of premature mortality, and the majority of these cases occur in low and middle-income countries. This is why a ban on trans fats can make a very big difference for worldwide health.

“WHO calls on governments to use the REPLACE action package to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the food supply,”said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Implementing the six strategic actions in the REPLACE package will help  achieve the elimination of trans fat, and represent a major victory in  the  global  fight against cardiovascular disease.”

As it so often happens, “REPLACE” is an acronym. In this case, the WHO calls for:

  • REview dietary sources of industrially-produced trans fats and the landscape for required policy change.
  • Promote the replacement of industrially-produced trans fats with healthier fats and oils.
  • Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially-produced trans fats.
  • Assess and monitor trans fats content in the food supply and changes in trans fat consumption in the population.
  • Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans fats among policymakers, producers, suppliers, and the public.
  • Enforce compliance with policies and regulations.
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Of course, there will likely be backlash and strong pushback lobbying from some parts of the food industry, but by taking a page from the fight against tobacco, the WHO can be successful in their efforts. The main difference is that the fight against tobacco took decades (you could really argue it’s not even over today), whereas the plan is to end trans fats within half a decade. Also, this is the first time the WHO, or any international health organization, has proposed a ban on a dietary component. It remains to be seen if the plan will succeed — here’s to hoping it will.

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