The use of artificial ‘trans fat’ in edible oils imperils health. New WHO guidelines advocate for a return to better-known, traditionally used alternatives.
On 14 May, the World Health Organisation called on all countries to make the world free of trans fats by 2023. A number of countries have already accomplished this, including a range of middle and lower income countries worldwide that have heavily restricted or eliminated trans fats altogether.
They do so with good reason.
Industrially produced trans fats are artificial compounds formed by ‘partial hydrogenation of edible oils’ that are harmful when consumed, even at low levels. In the South-East Asia Region, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVOs) are the primary source of trans fats in food items.
Commercial food production, particularly with regard to bakery products such as biscuits and pastries, uses high amounts of PHVOs, thus increasing the risk of trans fat consumption. Changing food patterns and the popularity of processed foods is likely to increase trans fat intake. Likewise, high levels of trans fat have also been found elsewhere, especially in food produced by informal vendors. Trans fats dramatically increase the risk of heart attack.
Replacing oils containing high trans fats with healthier options will have no impact on the taste or availability of food, and will dramatically advance health and wellbeing. It will also help achieve WHO South-East Asia’s regional target and Flagship Priority of reducing noncommunicable diseases by one-fourth by 2025, and then by one-third by 2030, as per the Sustainable Development Goal targets.
Mustard, sunflower, rapeseed (canola), ground nut, and soya based oils are all healthier alternatives. These crops are valuable, efficient and in high demand. Importantly, the increased growth, production and use of these crops will enhance the health and wellbeing of people and align the region with the global drive to restrict trans fats and save millions of lives at virtually no cost to government or consumers.
To that end, WHO’s six step REPLACE action package – launched last week in Geneva – provides all countries with proven tools to completely eliminate trans fats from their national food supply and counter increasingly changing food patterns. At present, 90% of people around the world – about 6.5 billion – are exposed to these artery clogging substances, with little to no government support or alternatives offerred. WHO’s REPLACE package aims to accelerate restrictions on trans fat products via an easy six step process. Each of these steps can be readily embraced, implemented and enforced, with game changing effect.
First is reviewing dietary sources of trans fats and the landscape required for policy change. Second is promoting the replacement of trans fats with healthier fats and oils. Third is legislating or enacting regulatory actions to eliminate trans fats. Fourth is assessing and monitoring trans fat content in the food supply and changes in trans fat consumption in the population. Fifth is creating awareness of the negative health impact of trans fats among policymakers, producers, suppliers and the public. And sixth is enforcing compliance with policies and regulations.
If implemented effectively, the WHO REPLACE package will ensure prompt, complete and sustained elimination of trans fats from the world’s food supply, thereby driving down demand. That is a good that will give many times over, saving billions of dollars in both developed and developing economies, and slashing the rate of premature deaths worldwide. But making that happen requires more than goodwill; it requires a willingness to act, and to do so decisively.
WHO’s new guidelines provide the opportunity and incentive to replace oils high in trans fats regionwide with locally made, healthy alternatives. That opportunity should be grasped, and a return to better known, traditional alternatives embraced.
The writer is Regional Director WHO South-East Asia Region