Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Dr. Tom Frieden
After victories in eradicating smallpox, certifying most of the world polio free and developing COVID-19 vaccines in record time, we are on the cusp – for the first time – of turning the tide on a major noninfectious global public health risk.
Consumption of industrially produced trans fat, a toxic chemical compound found in many processed foods, has prematurely killed up to half a million people worldwide each year from coronary heart disease. Many more live with the debilitating effects of heart attacks.
The avoidable health and social impacts of these noncommunicable diseases are immense. But they are also eminently avoidable.
The World Health Organization’s industrial trans fat elimination initiative (REPLACE), supported by Resolve to Save Lives and other partners, has the goal of making the world free from industrially produced trans fat by the end of 2023.
The initiative calls for countries to set limits on industrially produced trans fat or ban partially hydrogenated oils, which are a major source of trans fat in food. WHO recommends that not more than 2 grams of industrially produced trans fat are allowed in every 100 grams of fats and oils.
The case for action is clear. Removing trans fat from the global food supply saves lives and reduces the burden on health care by preventing heart attacks.
The opportunity is great. There is no need for our diets to include industrially produced trans fat. Oils not containing trans fat, and that are rich in healthier unsaturated fat, can be readily used as alternative ingredients. Consumers do not notice any change in the taste of their food; only their hearts will know the difference.
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And the time to act is now. COVID-19 has underscored, as never before in modern history, the importance of protecting and promoting people’s health and well-being.
When it comes to diet, the global public is increasingly demanding healthier options. It is the task of health agencies, governments, food manufacturers and oil suppliers to make these options the norm, not the exception.
Thankfully, more and more governments and, importantly, many manufacturers, recognize the case, the opportunity and the need.
Findings from a new WHO report, issued Tuesday, show that governments in 40 countries have put into effect industrial trans fat elimination policies that are protecting 1.4 billion people from this deadly food compound. In 2018, 23 countries had set limits on industrially produced trans fat or banned partially hydrogenated oils.
Although these measures have been taken mostly by high-income countries, they are now also being adopted in lower-middle-income nations.
Over the next few years, an additional 1.7 billion people will be protected thanks to best practice policies, including strong regulations, on industrially produced trans fat recently adopted in six countries: Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and Ukraine, as well as Uruguay and Paraguay. Nigeria is moving to do so as well.
Countries at highest risk haven’t acted
This trend is encouraging but must be urgently scaled up. Ten of the 15 countries suffering the highest health impact from industrially produced trans fat have not yet adopted a best-practice elimination policy.
While it is governments who make and enforce policies, it is the manufacturers who make the products. Therefore, it is vital for companies to adjust recipes and ingredients and oil suppliers to improve supply chains so that the healthier ingredients become the default choice.
Manufacturers have a responsibility to nourish, not harm, their consumers. As with progress creating renewable energy to protect the planet, companies are taking the opportunity to offer customers the healthier foods they need and want.
Food companies commit to action
Many of the world’s largest multinational food companies have committed to phase out industrially produced trans fat globally by the end of 2023. We must turn these commitments into measurable action.
One of the greatest challenges in eliminating trans fat has been enforcing policies and monitoring impact. To address this, we call on countries to join the WHO Certification Program for Trans Fat Elimination. This initiative supports the monitoring and enforcement of national policies to eliminate industrially produced trans fat, and recognizes countries that have taken the necessary actions.
Rigorous monitoring and enforcement, including receiving data from companies, are essential if we are to guarantee that countries and companies have taken verifiable actions to eliminate trans fat.
This is where the difference will be made.
At a time when the importance of public health has never been more paramount, we call on governments, industry and all other stakeholders to embrace their essential roles in protecting people from industrially produced trans fat, and to replace the horror of heart disease with the hope for good health.