WHO: Great Progress Made in Eliminating Trans Fat

GENEVA — The World Health Organization says great progress has been made in the global elimination of industrially produced trans fat, with nearly half the world’s population protected against the harmful effects of this toxic product.

“Five years ago, WHO called on countries and the food sector to eliminate industrially produced trans fats from the food supply. The response has been incredible,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.

“So far, 53 countries have implemented best practice policies, including bans and limits on trans fats, with three more countries on the way. This removes a major health risk for at least 3.7 billion people, or 46% of the world’s population.

“These policies are expected to save 183,000 lives every year. Just five years ago, only 6% of the world’s population was protected from this toxic additive with similar policies,” Tedros said.

Trans fat is created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature.

“It is also solid in your body, in your coronary artery,” said Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. “And this is why it was at one point estimated to kill half a million people per year.” 

With almost half the world covered, Frieden said millions of deaths will be prevented in the coming decades. He said the next two years will be critical, noting that the original deadline for the global elimination of trans fats has been extended from 2023 to 2025 due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Global elimination, according to published estimates, would prevent about 17.5 million deaths over 25 years. The progress of reducing trans fat globally show that the noncommunicable diseases can be beaten,” Frieden said.

He said this was important because “sometimes when it comes to the noncommunicable diseases, we have the sense that we can describe them, we can predict them, but we cannot stop them. In fact, we can, and the progress stopping trans fat shows that that is possible. And there are other areas, as well, where specific results are available.”

Health officials say no amount of trans fat is safe and regard it as the worst type of fat anyone can eat because it has no known nutritional benefits. Trans fat is cheap to make and is found in margarine, palm oil, fried foods, baked products, pastries and some processed foods. 

WHO reports that a high intake of trans fat increases the risk of death from any cause by 34% and from coronary heart disease by 28%. 

WHO on Monday held an awards ceremony honoring the achievements of the first five countries to have eliminated trans fat from their food supply.  

“Today, we recognize Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Thailand as the first countries to go beyond just adopting policies, to monitoring and enforcing them,” Tedros said.  

“Congratulations to all these countries. You are leading the world and showing what is possible. You are the first countries to be validated, but you will not be the last,” he said.

In accepting the award, Ib Petersen, Danish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said studies show that trans fat elimination policies put in place in his country in 2003 have “led to a reduction of deaths from coronary disease of 11%, which is significant.”

“It also shows that it is the most financially disadvantaged groups that have benefited most from this policy,” he said.

Frieden said he hopes more nations will follow the lead of these five countries in putting in place the policies, regulations and enforcement mechanisms needed to rid the world of trans fat.

“Of the remaining burden, just five countries — China, Pakistan, Russia, Indonesia, and Iran — account for about 60% of the remaining estimated burden. If these five countries were to implement [the best practice policies], the world would get to about 85% of the estimated burden, banned or trans fat-free,” he said.

WHO reports progress remains uneven, and a lot of work is still to be done. While many low- and middle-income countries are advancing, it says there is a long way to go, especially in Africa and the western Pacific.

“Africa has the lowest policy coverage, but there have been leaders with Nigeria and South Africa implementing,” said Frieden. “South Africa is beginning the enforcement process, and Ethiopia, Ghana and Cameroon are considering regulations in the near future.  

“They understand that trans fat is not only a toxic product, but one that might be dumped on them if they do not take action when the rest of the world is banning it,” Frieden said, adding that governments and the food industry have a responsibility to ensure that does not happen. 

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