Why did the WHO Intend to Eliminate Trans Fats in the World by 2023?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released the fourth Report on the global elimination of trans fatty acids (TFA) that seriously affect people's health. Here we tell you what are the path and challenges that countries have to achieve the objectives set.


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LatinAmerican Post | Erika Benitez

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Leer en español: ¿Por qué la OMS pretendía eliminar las grasas trans en el mundo para 2023?

The report by the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety of the WHO monitored the global progress of the elimination of trans fats that are produced industrially. The document discloses the progress and good practices implemented by the different countries in the period between October 2021 and September 2022.

According to WHO data, "consumption of trans fats is responsible for up to 500,000 premature deaths from coronary heart disease each year worldwide." In this sense, the organization recommends that the consumption of these fats be less than 1% of total caloric intake, which translates into less than 2.2 g/day in a 2,000-calorie diet. Despite the fact that good practices have been implemented in various countries, the goals that the WHO had set for its elimination in 2023 will not be met.

What are trans fats, and why are they harmful to health?

Trans fats (TFA) are a type of unsaturated fatty acids that are created industrially. Its uncontrolled intake is harmful to the heart, since it raises bad cholesterol levels in the blood and reduces good cholesterol. We can find them in solidified vegetable fats such as margarine. As well as fried, baked and ultra-processed foods such as: pre-cooked pizzas and lasagna, pastries, microwave popcorn, oils and industrial pastry.

Their production has become very common to improve the shelf life of products, to save money and as a marketing strategy, since they use plant ingredients that are usually considered "healthier", but in reality, their processing causes serious problems to health. As reported in the WHO research, there are other healthier alternatives that are viable and do not affect the taste or cost of food.

Currently, multiple studies show that the intake of this type of fat increases the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, which, according to the WHO report, continue to be the main cause of death in the world. In addition, they are "responsible for more than a third of premature deaths each year." For the most part, this is reflected in low- and middle-income countries, so the focus of action should be particularly focused on these areas.

The paper also talks about the challenge of tackling unhealthy diets, which are responsible for 8 million deaths worldwide each year. This is reiterated in the 2019 study on the "Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors (GBD)", and that it is a key element for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.

To achieve this goal, it is necessary to implement policies that include legislative or regulatory measures to limit trans fat content to no more than 2 grams per 100 grams of total fat (2%) in all foods. In the same way, the prohibition of the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils (one of the main sources of trans fats) as an ingredient in food should be established.

What has been the progress of the measures?

In general figures, the countries have responded to the call of the WHO to carry out effective measures for the global elimination of fatty acids. According to the report, there are currently mandatory policies for 3.4 billion people in 60 countries (representing 43% of the world's population). Of these, "43 countries have implemented good practice policies, covering 2.8 billion people (36% of the world population)."

However, most of the measures that have been implemented have been in high-income countries, especially in the American and European regions. Until 2021 alone, India and the Philippines became the first and second lower-middle-income countries to pass a good practice policy. No low-income nation has yet adopted a best practice policy for eliminating trans fats.

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Progress for the Latin American region

For the region of the Americas, in the year 2022, in Uruguay the use of more than 2% of TFA in food was prohibited. This country has been joined by Brazil, Chile, Canada, Peru, and the United States, as the sixth country in the Americas to apply these policies. The most recent case is Argentina, which managed to approve a best practices policy, which will enter into force in 2024, and which extends the 2% limit on oils and fats to all other foods.

In 2022, less restrictive provisional TFA limits entered into force in Paraguay (2% on all oils and fats, and 5% on other foods). In September 2024, a best practice policy will be implemented. For their part, Ecuador and Colombia have limits of 2% in oils and fats, and 5% of total fat in all foods. In Mexico, a good practices policy approved by the Senate has been drafted and is awaiting the Congressional one for enactment.

Although there has been significant progress, since 2018, the WHO first called for the global elimination of industrially produced trans fats. The goal of totally eliminating them by 2023 remains unattainable, there is still a long way to go. Several countries are still tasked with establishing good practice policies to protect their citizens from the harmful effects of TFA. It is necessary, through the program, to broaden the interest of governments, companies, the private sector and civil society in generating actions that accelerate progress towards meeting the goal, since according to the report, five billion people around the world continue to have no protection against harmful trans fats.

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