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Hearts at risk: 5B people still need protection from trans fat, says WHO

BEWARE of that donut or brownie. Better make sure it doesn’t have trans fat. Some five billion people need to be protected from trans fat, which could harm their heart health and increase their chances of death, the World Health Organization warned. Trans fat can still be found in many baked and fried foods.
by Leila Salaverria

BEWARE of that donut or brownie. Better make sure it doesn’t have trans fat. 

Some five billion people need to be protected from trans fat, which could harm their heart health and increase their risk of death, the World Health Organization warned in its annual status report on its goal to eliminate trans fat. 

Trans fat can still be found in many baked and fried foods. 

The WHO in 2018 launched a campaign to eliminate the use of trans fat by 2023. Some 43 countries, including the Philippines, have either been implementing or have committed to take steps to minimize the use and consumption of this substance.

The Philippines in 2021 adopted a best-practice policy to eliminate trans fat, and this is expected to come into effect this year.

But no low or lower middle income country had best-practice policies in effect, said WHO. 

According to the WHO, the measures that have been adopted protect some 2.8 billion people. But these are not enough. The goal of eliminating trans far worldwide is out of reach at this time, it said. 

“Despite substantial progress, however, this still leaves 5 billion worldwide at risk from trans fat’s devastating health impacts with the global goal for its total elimination in 2023 remaining unattainable at this time,” it said in a statement. 

It also said that nine out of the 16 countries that have the highest estimated proportion of coronary heart disease attributed to trans fat do not have a best-practice policy. These countries are the Republic of Korea, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, and Pakistan. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said trans fat does not provide any benefits, and removing it from people’s diets would help improve their health. 

“By contrast, eliminating trans fat is cost effective and has enormous benefits for health. Put simply, trans fat is a toxic chemical that kills, and should have no place in food. It’s time to get rid of it once and for all,” Ghebreyesus said. 

What is trans fat?

Trans fat, or trans-fatty acids (TFA), are unsaturated fatty acids that can come from natural or industrial sources.

The WHO said high trans fat intake increases the risk of death from any cause by 34 percent, coronary heart disease deaths by 28 percent, and coronary heart disease by 21 percent. This is believed to be due to its effect of increasing bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol levels. 

Natural trans fat appears to produce a similar effect.

There are no known health benefits of trans fat, it said. 

Where is trans fat found?

Industrially-produced trans fat is mainly found in partially hydrogenated oils, which is an ingredient in many foods.

These foods include margarine, vegetable shortening, fried foods and doughnuts, baked goods, cooking oils, and pre-mixed products such as pancake and hot chocolate mix. Street foods and restaurant dishes often contain trans far. 

The WHO said manufacturers could make these products without trans fat. 

Fighting trans fat

The WHO said resources for preventing non-communicable diseases and eliminating trans fatty acids have yet to recover from the effects of the pandemic, even though countries have learned to cope with the virus. 

But it said there is a vital need to boost efforts to prevent non-communicable diseases without delay, especially since people with these conditions are at risk of illness or death from COVID-19.  

With the 2023 deadline to eliminate trans far looming, there is also an urgent need for country policy makers and stakeholders to act against its continued use.

The WHO recommends that countries focus on:

  • Developing and adopting best-practice policies to set limits on the use of trans fatty acids or to ban partially hydrogenated oils
  • Investing in monitoring and surveillance mechanisms, including laboratories to measure trans fatty acid content in foods
  • Starting the discussion on using healthy oil replacements 

The WHO also called on food manufacturers to stop the use of industrially produced trans fat in their products. It asked major suppliers of oils and fats to remove industrially produced trans fat from the products sold to food manufacturers globally.

Philippine action 

In 2021, the Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration released its guidelines for the implementation of the Department of Health order to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fatty acids in the country’s food supply chain by June 18, 2023.

The guidelines prohibit the manufacturing, trade, distribution, importation and sale of partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) to be consumed alone or used in processed food products; oils and fats blended with PHO; and prepackaged processed foods with PHO and industrially produced trans fatty acid content of more than 2 grams per 100 g or ml. 

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