For the first time, the World Health Organization is taking steps to eliminate a substance that leads to a non-communicable disease: heart disease.
The World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced a plan Monday to eliminate trans fat from the global food supply by 2023.
Trans fat raises LDL, the “bad” type of cholesterol, and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Trans fat also reduces the amount of HDL, the “good” cholesterol that protects your heart.
Trans fat is artificially made. Liquid vegetable oils are processed with hydrogen to produce a solid fat, like stick margarine or ghee, which is frequently used in south Asian cooking. Trans fat is often present in snack foods like potato chips, baked foods, crackers and fried foods.
The advantages of trans fat is that it is cheap, lasts longer than natural oils, can be heated and reheated over and over again, and it’s almost ideal for making baked goods. “Almost” because it can kill you.
WHO estimates that every year consumption of trans fat leads to more than 500,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease.
At his announcement at WHO headquarters in Geneva Monday, Ghebreyesus asked, “Why should our children have such an unsafe ingredient in their foods?”
Several high-income countries have virtually eliminated industrially produced trans fat through legally imposed limits on the amount that can be contained in packaged food.
Denmark, the first country to do it, saw a marked decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease. Then other countries followed Denmark’s lead. About 40 countries currently have laws banning trans fat.
Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joined Ghebreyesus at the rollout of the WHO program. Frieden now heads a nonprofit called “Resolve to Save Lives.” He told VOA, “We estimate that if trans fat is eliminated, 17 million lives will be saved over a 25-year period.”
Frieden was behind the initiative to get trans fat banned in New York City, prior to joining the CDC, when he was the city’s health commissioner.
“Trans fat is tasteless. It’s solid at room temperature, but it’s also solid at body temperature in your coronary arteries,” he said. “Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed.”
Frieden also said it is easy and inexpensive to replace trans fats with healthier oils.
More than 80 percent of deaths from cardiovascular disease are estimated to occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to a 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The WHO initiative, called REPLACE, calls on countries to implement six strategies.
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 of policies and regulations.
Although trans fat is present in cheese and other dairy products and in some meats, the amounts are so small that it is not considered dangerous.