Don’t slow efforts on trans fats in response to COVID pandemic, WHO warns

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

COVID-19 should not be allowed to overshadow action on trans fats, WHO argues
COVID-19 should not be allowed to overshadow action on trans fats, WHO argues

Related tags: Trans fat, WHO

The World Health Organization has called on global governments to remain focused on eliminating trans fats from the food supply, despite the new and unprecedented challenges being thrown up by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The WHO wants the world to be trans fat free by 2023. Two years into this effort, the WHO’s second progress report revealed substantial progress has been made to remove trans fats from our food.

In total, 58 countries have introduced laws that, the WHO said, will protect more than 3bn people from industrially produced trans fats by the end of 2021. However, more than 100 countries have not taken action to eliminate trans fats from their national food supplies.

The WHO unveiled a new certification scheme to recognise countries that achieve the elimination of industrially produced trans fats.

NCDs: The world's number one killer

During a virtual event to launch the report, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director-General, told attendees that the threat presented by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) has not abated, despite the current focus on containing coronavirus.

NCDs remain the leading cause of death globally, killing 38 million people each year with almost three-quarters of deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Consumption of industrially produced trans fats has been linked to around 500,000 deaths per year due to coronary heart disease.

“In a time when the whole world is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, we must make every effort to protect people’s health. That must include taking all steps possible to prevent noncommunicable diseases that can make them more susceptible to the coronavirus, and cause premature death,”​ Dr Tedros said. “Our goal of eliminating trans fats by 2023 must not be delayed.”

Fifteen countries account for approximately two thirds of the worldwide deaths linked to trans fat intake. Of these, four (Canada, Latvia, Slovenia, the USA) have implemented WHO-recommended best-practice policies since 2017, either by setting mandatory limits for industrially produced trans fats to 2% of oils and fats in all foods or banning partially hydrogenated oils (PHO).

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 and are cheaper than other fats.

But the remaining 11 countries (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Republic of Korea) still need to take urgent action.

Action is, however, vital as global governments face increased pressure on healthcare provisions due to the novel coronavirus, argued Dr Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, which is working in conjunction with the WHO.

Some may think we need to slow our efforts on trans fat elimination and focus on COVID-19. In truth, prevention is more important than ever. Trans fat elimination prevents heart attacks, and as such reduces the burden on healthcare facilities​,” he stressed.

Eliminating trans fats ‘saves lives and saves money’

While the experts were quick to express the urgency of removing trans fats from food, the WHO report did also highlight two ‘encouraging trends’.

First, when countries do act, they overwhelmingly adopt best-practice policies rather than less restrictive ones, WHO found. For instance, new policy measures in Brazil, Turkey and Nigeria all meet WHO’s criteria for best-practice policies. Meanwhile, countries, such as India, that have previously implemented less restrictive measures, are now updating policies to align with best practice, WHO revealed.

Second, regional regulations that set standards for multiple countries are becoming ‘increasingly popular’ and emerging as a ‘promising strategy’ for accelerating progress towards global elimination by 2023. In 2019, the European Union passed a best-practice policy.

Dr Frieden believes that this tougher stance from national and regional regulators in part reflects the economic argument supporting action on trans fats: it is cheaper to take them out of the food supply than it is to treat the diseases associated with consumption.

“With the global economic downturn, more than ever, countries are looking for best buys in public health,”​ Dr Frieden suggested. “Making food trans fat-free saves lives and saves money, and, by preventing heart attacks, reduces the burden on health care facilities.”

WHO best practice recommendations 

WHO recommends that trans fat intake be limited to less than 1% of total energy intake, which translates to less than 2.2 g/day with a 2,000-calorie diet.

To achieve a world free of industrially produced trans fats by 2023, WHO recommends that countries:

  • develop and implement best-practice policies to set mandatory limits for industrially produced trans fats to 2% of oils and fats in all foods or to ban partially hydrogenated oils (PHO);
  • invest in monitoring mechanisms, e.g. lab capacity to measure and monitor trans fats in foods; and
  • advocate for regional or sub-regional regulations to expand the benefits of trans fat policies.

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