Health officials launch ambitious plan to rid the world of trans fats

Health officials launch ambitious plan to rid the world of trans fats Click here to view original web page at
Health officials launch ambitious plan to rid the world of trans fats
Milky Way candy bars are deep-fried in oil free of trans fats at the Indiana State Fair. The World Health Organization has called on all nations to eliminate artificial trans fats from foods in the next five years. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

In an effort to save half a million lives each year, the World Health Organization on Monday urged developing nations to follow the lead of affluent countries and eliminate man-made trans fatty acids from their food supplies.

"Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there's no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed" to it, said Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now leads an initiative called Resolve to Save Lives.

"The cost of transitioning to healthier fats is very small and the cost of treating cardiovascular disease is very high," said Willett, who was among the first researchers to call out trans fats' dangers and led the effort to ban them.

Some trans fats occur naturally in dairy foods and meat from ruminant animals. These do not raise major health concerns.

Industrially produced trans fats, on the other hand, have helped fuel an epidemic of cardiovascular disease since they were broadly introduced to the food supply in the 1950s.

These fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, converting liquid fats to a solid at room temperature. These "partially hydrogenated" oils made processed foods cheaper to produce while extending their shelf life, and they quickly became an ingredient in bakery and snack foods devoured across the world.

By the mid-1990s, scientists began to turn up evidence that consuming trans fatty acids throws blood cholesterol out of whack, raising levels of LDL (the bad kind) and reducing levels of HDL (the good kind). Once public health researchers linked the growing use of industrial trans fats to rising U.S. rates of heart disease, they spearheaded an effort to expunge the fats from the American diet.

By next month, food manufacturers supplying U.S. consumers are expected to have reformulated their products to drive down trans fats to negligible levels. That process has taken five years, and has met with only muted resistance from large food manufacturers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has estimated that reducing trans fat in the U.S. diet could prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year. That's in line with studies that measured the impact of trans fat limits in Denmark and the United States. A 2016 study of New York City's ban found that restricting the industrially-produced fats drove down cardiovascular deaths by 4.5% and produced annual savings of $3.9 million per 100,000 people.

The World Health Organization initiative launched Monday, dubbed REPLACE, outlines a sequence of actions that countries should take to reduce trans fatty acids in their food supplies. It calls on governments to work with legislatures, nongovernmental organizations, oil and food manufacturers, and their citizens to enact measures that mandate the replacement of industrially-produced trans fats with healthier fats and oils.

"The problem in poorer countries is that there isn't as much surveillance and government oversight of the food supply, and in their absence you find the small-time vendors much prefer the use of these particular hydrogenated fats," McCarthy said. "The profit motive is going to favor their use until there's enough political will to intervene. Just as with control of tobacco products, it takes money, resources and political will to enforce regulations that a lot of food vendors would prefer not to have."

The World Health Organization has held up two countries — Iran and South Africa — as models for other low- and middle-income nations to follow.

In 2008, South Africa became the first developing country to enact legislation against trans fatty acids, setting a limit on the trans fat content of oils and fats for human consumption of 2 grams per 100 grams. Experts said it worked because it did not target big food companies but the manufacturers of industrial fats, a consolidated industry with few players.

Starting in 2005, Iran's government collaborated with oil manufacturers, oil importers and nongovernmental organizations to reduce trans fats. The government first mandated that the cap on trans fats in corn oil, palm oil, frying oil and mixed liquid oils be cut in half, from 20% to 10%. In 2011, the government continued reducing allowable trans fat content, and has now met its 2018 goal of no more than 1% trans fat content in those oils.

Melissa Healy

Melissa Healy is a health and science reporter with the Los Angeles Times writing from the Washington, D.C., area. She covers prescription drugs, obesity, nutrition and exercise, and neuroscience, mental health and human behavior. She's been at The Times for more than 30 years, and has covered national security, environment, domestic social policy, Congress and the White House. As a baby boomer, she keenly follows trends in midlife weight gain, memory loss and the health benefits of red wine.

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