In a dramatic move that has only been reserved for saving the public from communicable diseases in the past, the World Health Organization has called for a world-wide ban on trans fats in the next five years. In partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gates Foundation-funded health organization Resolve to Save Lives, the WHO proposed an initiative to get rid of all “industrially-produced sources” of trans fats.
Industrially-produced trans fats can be replaced in food with healthier alternatives without affecting taste or cost.
We will work for a trans fat free 🌍 by 2023 https://t.co/KLK2auFJeg#REPLACEtransfat pic.twitter.com/3RU3aqa9QG
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) May 15, 2018
The WHO estimates that foods containing trans fats are the cause of 500,000 premature deaths worldwide every year by contributing to heart disease and heart attacks. They propose that banning the substance from all foods will be a major step in reducing preventable deaths. In 2004, Denmark became the first country to completely outlaw trans fats, and other countries have been getting on board more recently. Canada has approved a ban that is set to take effect in September and an America-wide ban will start in June (before now, only New York City had legislation to restrict the substance). The WHO’s main concern is countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia which still use products that contain trans fats excessively.
Trans fats were first created artificially (they occur naturally in low levels in certain meat products) in the early 20th century and gained popularity in the 1950s as an alternative to butter. They are often present in frying oils, fried snacks, margarine and shortening since trans fat-based oils have a longer shelf life (don’t worry, Canada has nearly phased them out entirely in those products).
In their statement, the WHO proposed a plan called REPLACE which details a comprehensive strategy for eliminating trans fats at the government level. It suggests reviewing where trans fats are still used, educating the public about their dangers, creating legislation to add legal gravitas to the issue and enforcing the regulations that are put in place.
Former New York mayor and creator of the city’s trans fat ban Michael Bloomberg likened the REPLACE plan to the highly-effective anti-tobacco campaigns that ran in the latter half of the 20th century.
“A comprehensive approach to tobacco control allowed us to make more progress globally over the last decade than almost anyone thought possible,” he said, “Now, a similar approach to trans fat can help us make that kind of progress against cardiovascular disease, another of the world’s leading causes of preventable death.”
He’s right. Various studies have shown that both the bans in New York and Denmark noticeably reduced the rate of death from heart disease in just three years. However, as the WHO pointed out in their suggestions, many high-income countries have been able to encourage companies to lower or eliminate their trans fat use, while low- to middle-income countries might not have the resources to instigate a ban. The organization wants “to ensure that the benefits [of a ban] are felt equally around the world,” but with inevitable pushback from companies that rely on the inclusion of trans fat in their products, that might be difficult to achieve globally.