Opinion | The World Doesn’t Need Trans Fats

Opinion | The World Doesn’t Need Trans Fats


Most of the American food industry stopped using artificial trans fats, a leading cause of heart disease and death globally, well in advance of a federal ban that goes into effect next month, and few consumers noticed the change in their French fries or doughnuts. But these fats are still commonly used in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and elsewhere, which is why it is welcome news that the World Health Organization is calling on countries to phase them out by 2023.

Trans fats are responsible for about 540,000 deaths around the world every year — deaths that could be avoided if countries banned the use of industrially produced partially hydrogenated oils, which can be replaced with healthier options like vegetable oil. Beyond the United States, countries like Canada and Denmark have taken action against the use of trans fats, but lawmakers and regulators in many other places haven’t — because they are either unaware of the health risks or they are reluctant to take on the food industry. Another common argument against banning these substances is that doing so limits consumer choice, the so-called nanny state argument.

Businesses ranging from large processed-food manufacturers to mom-and-pop restaurants and bakeries like using trans fats — usually for frying and as shortening in baked goods — because they are inexpensive and have a long shelf life. But regular consumption of even a small amount of these oils increases the amount of what is commonly referred to as bad cholesterol, or LDL, in the blood while reducing so-called good cholesterol, or HDL. Experts say removing this additive from foods is one of the easiest and most straightforward ways to reduce the prevalence of heart disease and the deaths related to it.

That’s why the W.H.O. also has long urged countries to issue nutritional guidelines that advise people to avoid trans fats. But it is not always easy for consumers to know when they are eating these oils, which are often in packaged or prepared foods that are not clearly labeled. In addition, many countries have not explained the health risks that these fats pose. In India, for example, researchers have found high concentrations of trans fats in street food and in packaged snacks, many of which have no warning labels.

Officials at the W.H.O. developed its trans fats campaign with Resolve to Save Lives, a public health group led by Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who in 2007, as health commissioner of New York City, banned the use of trans fats in restaurants and bakeries. The W.H.O. and Dr. Frieden say they will help countries assess how trans fats are used in food, educate consumers, promote alternatives and develop policies to eliminate these substances over time.

Governments will have to take care in phasing out trans fats, because some alternatives could cause other problems. For instance, some food companies have replaced partially hydrogenated oils with palm oil, which is often produced on land that is prepared by clear-cutting rain forests that are home to threatened species.

Regulators can reduce the use of palm oil by, among other things, encouraging the use of butter and other oils. Experts say that even the relatively modest change of replacing trans fats with saturated fats like butter can reduce the risk of heart disease. People can improve their health even more by opting for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like olive oil.

Trans fats are a silent killer that many people are not aware of and can easily live without. Banning them should be an easy call for nations around the world, and the W.H.O. is right to push them to do so.



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