Commentary

WHO Calls For The Global Elimination Of Artificial Trans Fats

In an “unprecedented” action, the World Health Organization today launched an initiative to eliminate artificial trans fats from foods around the world over the next five years. The initiative, dubbed REPLACE, is aimed at saving the more than 500,000 lives a year that the Geneva, Switzerland-based WHO estimates are lost to cardiovascular disease caused by Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods.

“Industrially produced trans fats are contained in hardened vegetable fats, such as margarine and ghee, and are often present in snack food, baked foods, and fried foods. Manufacturers  often use them as they have a longer shelf life than other fats. But healthier alternatives can be used that would not affect taste or cost of food,” according to the news release announcing the initiative.

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“The REPLACE package is the first time the WHO is calling for the elimination of something other than a noncommunicable disease, said Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of the public health initiative Resolve to Save Lives” and former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CNN’s Jacqueline Howard reports. “Resolve to Save Lives, a partner of the WHO and a part of the nonprofit Vital Strategies, plans to provide assistance to countries to support the REPLACE strategies in eliminating artificial trans fats.”

When he was New York City's health commissioner between 2002 and 2009, Frieden led its efforts to remove artificial trans fats from restaurants, which was accomplished in 2006. “What we found in New York City was that industry wasn't really willing to fight us on this,” Frieden said, Howard writes, because artificial trans fats are “easily replaceable.” 

“You don't need to change the taste or cost or availability for great food. Only your heart will know the difference …,’” Frieden tells Howard.

“Multinational companies that make trans fats and have used them as ingredients said they have largely eliminated those oils from foods in the U.S., parts of Europe and Canada, where governments already restrict their use. But trans fats remain widely used where regulators and food makers have been slower to take action. Many of the fats are in foods or oils made by local producers,” Betsy McKay and Jacob Bunge write for the Wall Street Journal.

“The International Food and Beverage Alliance — a Geneva group representing food companies including Kellogg Co., General Mills Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and Unilever NV — said its members have removed industrially produced trans fat from 98.8% of their global product portfolios. ‘We welcome this action by the World Health Organization,’ said Rocco Renaldi, the group’s secretary-general,” McKay and Bunge continue.

Once upon a time, the product was pitched as being healthier than its natural alternatives.

“The first trans fatty food to hit the U.S. market was Crisco shortening, which went on sale in 1911. Trans fatty foods became increasingly popular beginning in the 1950s, partly because experts at the time thought they were healthier than cooking with butter or lard,” writes the Associated Press’ Mike Stobbe for the Washington Post.

“Food makers liked artificial trans fats because they prolong product shelf life and enhance flavor. They used them in such fare as doughnuts, cookies and deep-fried foods,” Stobbe continues. “But studies gradually revealed that trans fats wreck cholesterol levels in the blood and drive up the risk of heart disease.”

In applauding WHO’s action, the New York Times’ editorial board writes: “It is not always easy for consumers to know when they are eating these oils, which are often in packaged or prepared foods that are not clearly labeled. In addition, many countries have not explained the health risks that these fats pose. In India, for example, researchers have found high concentrations of trans fats in street food and in packaged snacks, many of which have no warning labels.”

REPLACE is the product of an agency with 7,000 people working in offices in 150 countries and, as such, is not one of those acronyms whose meaning is immediately apparent like, say, LOL. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 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 policy makers, producers, suppliers, and the public.
  • Enforce compliance of policies and regulations.

You’ll be happy to know that the quiz tomorrow will be multiple choice, pass/fail.

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