UN health agency aims to wipe out trans fats worldwide
NEW YORK — The World Health Organization has released a plan to help countries wipe out artery-clogging trans fats from the global food supply in the next five years.
The United Nations agency has in the past pushed to exterminate infectious diseases, but now it’s aiming to erase a hazard linked to chronic illness.
In a statement Monday, the U.N. health agency said eliminating trans fats is critical to preventing deaths worldwide. WHO estimates that eating trans fats — commonly found in baked and processed foods — leads to the deaths of more than 500,000 people from heart disease every year.
“It’s a crisis level, and it’s major front in our fight now,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva on Monday.
Officials think it can be done in five years because the work is well underway in many countries. Denmark did it 15 years ago, and since then the United States and more than 40 other higher-income countries have been working on getting the additives out of their food supplies.
The WHO is now pushing middle- and lower-income countries to pick up the
fight, said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.
Artificial trans fats are unhealthy substances that are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it solid, like in the creation of margarine or shortening. Health experts say they can be replaced with canola oil or other products. There are also naturally occurring trans fats in some meats and dairy products.
The WHO recommends that no more than 1 percent of a person’s calories come from trans fats.
“Trans fats are a harmful compound that can be removed easily without major cost and without any impact on the quality of the foods,” Branca said.
Countries will likely have to use regulation or legislation to get food makers to make the switch, experts said.
At the WHO news conference Monday, a representative from a leading food industry trade group said companies are working to reduce trans fats in their products.
Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who worked with WHO officials on the call to action, called its move unprecedented.
In the U.S., the first trans fatty food to hit the market was Crisco
shortening, which went on sale in 1911. Trans fatty foods became increasingly popular beginning in the 1950s, partly because experts at the time thought they were healthier than cooking with butter or lard.
Food makers liked artificial trans fats because they prolonged product shelf life. They used them in doughnuts, cookies and deep-fried foods.
But studies gradual ly revealed that trans fats wreck cholesterol levels in the blood and drive up the risk of heart disease. Health advocates say trans fats are the most harmful fat in the food supply.
In the U.S., New York City in 2006 banned restaurants from serving food with trans fats. The same year the FDA required manufacturers to list trans fat content information on food labels. Many manu-facturers cut back, and studies showed trans fat levels in the blood of middle-aged U.S. adults fell by nearly 60 percent by the end of the decade.
In 2015, the FDA called for manufacturers to stop selling trans fatty foods by June 18, 2018 — a deadline that arrives next month. FDA officials have not said how much progress has been made or how they will enforce their rule against food makers that don’t comply.