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50 Years Late, WHO Declares War on Trans Fats

trans fat

Story at-a-glance -

  • A food product may be labeled free of trans fat and still have up to 0.5 grams per serving, which means just a few servings can provide you with a physiologically significant amount of harmful fat
  • Decades after research proved compelling health risks from trans fat, the World Health Organization released guidelines calling for its elimination from the global food supply by 2023
  • This ambitious five-year goal may be difficult to achieve and may only result in swapping trans fat for polyunsaturated fat high in omega-6 fatty acids, thus simply swapping one unhealthy fat for another
  • True to their history, once the FDA recommended all trans fat removed from processed foods, the Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned for an exception, but was denied as the FDA no longer considers trans fat to be generally recognized as safe

By Dr. Mercola

As knowledge of the danger of trans fats became more widespread, some in the food industry responded by reformulating their products. However, even if a product claims to be free of trans fats, it can contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. This means eating just a few servings can result in you getting a physiologically significant amount of this harmful fat. To truly avoid trans fat in processed food you must read the list of ingredients.

If a product contains partially hydrogenated oil, it contains trans fat, even if it claims to be trans fat free. Ideally, most of your diet would consist of whole foods. If your daily consumption of trans fat reaches 4.6 grams, it can increase your risk of heart disease by as much as 30 percent.1 In 2009, the late Dr. Fred Kummerow, who had studied heart disease for more than 60 years, filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), calling for a ban on synthetic trans fats.

The FDA did not respond quickly. It wasn't until 2015 they publicly acknowledged the effect of trans fat on health and released their determination partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS). PHOs are the primary dietary source of artificial trans fats in processed foods and the FDA believes removing them could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.2

In their determination they call for the majority of uses of PHO to be removed from food by June 18, 2018,3 extending the compliance date to January 1, 2020 for products produced before June 18, 2018. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a five-year plan to eliminate industry-produced trans fat from the global food supply.4

World Health Organization Unveils Ambitious Five-Year Plan

For the first time in the history of the organization, WHO is now calling for the elimination of a lifestyle factor responsible for noncommunicable disease.5 They have announced a comprehensive guide to assist countries in the elimination of industrially produced trans fat from the global food supply. This is a logical step, although years later than expected, given some countries have already taken similar measures to protect the health of their citizens following multiple studies demonstrating the danger.

Trans fat is produced when vegetable oils are hydrogenated, a process used to harden the oil. Manufacturers claim this extends the shelf life of their foods and is cheaper than the alternatives. However, WHO contests both of these claims, and believe the implementation of their strategies to eliminate trans fat from the global food supply will represent a major victory against cardiovascular disease.6

Denmark was the first country to impose restrictions on trans fat nearly 15 years ago.7 New York City enacted restrictions 10 years ago with positive results.8 Michael Bloomberg, three-term mayor of New York City and WHO Global Ambassador for noncommunicable diseases, commented:9

"Banning trans fats in New York City helped reduce the number of heart attacks without changing the taste or cost of food, and eliminating the use around the world can save millions of lives.

A comprehensive approach to Tobacco Control allowed us to make more progress globally over the last decade than almost anyone thought possible — now, a similar approach to trans fat can help us make that kind of progress against cardiovascular disease, another of the world's leading causes of preventable death."

In their current guidelines, WHO recommends a total reduction to less than 1 percent of total calorie intake.10 For a 2,000 calories a day diet, this is no more than 2.2 grams of trans fat a day. The guidelines are recommendations national and local governments may use, but will require governments to do the heavy lifting on enforcement. The plan calls for implementing six actions represented in the acronym REPLACE.11

REview dietary sources of industrially produced trans fats and the landscape for required policy change

Promote the replacement of industrially produced trans fats with healthier fats and oils

Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially produced trans fats

Assess and monitor trans fats content in the food supply and changes in trans fat consumption in the population

Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans fats among policy makers, producers, suppliers and the public

Enforce compliance of policies and regulations

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Low-Income Countries Face Weaker Food and Safety Controls

Countries will have to use regulation or legislation to make these changes in their food chain, getting food makers to make the switch. This will likely be more difficult in low- to middle-income countries where food controls are weak.12 While many manufacturers must stop selling foods containing trans fat by June 18, FDA officials have not indicated how much progress has been made or how this rule will be enforced against manufacturers who fail to comply.13

According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, former New York City health commissioner and the driving force behind the New York City ban on trans fat, WHO's effort is a low-cost way for developing countries to reduce mortality.14 "If the world replaces trans fats, people won't taste the difference, food won't cost more, but your heart will know the difference," he says.

Trans fat remains popular in many emerging economies, particularly in South Asia. Local producers in this area dominate the edible oil industry and food regulations are relatively nonexistent. Barry Popkin, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, commented,15 "The reality is that global food companies have done an amazing job reducing trans fats in rich countries but they have largely ignored Asia and Africa."

India struggles with high rates of cardiovascular disease. Vanaspati, an inexpensive cooking oil commonly used in India, is sometimes used repeatedly by restaurants and street vendors, rendering it even more harmful and likely to contribute to the soaring rates of heart disease.16 Research data suggests coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of death in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent and this population has the highest risk of CAD in the world.17

While the Indian government has made efforts to reduce the use of vanaspati, they have been challenged by food producers in the area. WHO recommendations and the REPLACE initiative seek to overcome resistance through public education and encouraging governments to enact legislation. In an effort to move their initiative forward, WHO has enlisted multinational companies in the effort to shift from trans fat by sharing their technological abilities with local producers.

Science Strong Yet Industry Group Seeks Exception

Research showing the link between trans fat consumption and heart disease has been strong enough to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.18 In response, the FDA has taken PHOs and trans fat off their GRAS list.19 However, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) doesn't seem to have read the memos.

The GMA is one of the largest and most powerful lobbying groups for the processed food industry. In an effort to protect the use of trans fat, the GMA submitted a petition to the FDA requesting an amendment of the food additive regulation, claiming safe use of PHOs in food applications. The final revised petition requested use of PHOs as a solvent or carrier for flavoring or coloring agents, as a processing aid, and as a baked goods pan release agent in nearly 60 food categories.20

The GMA proposed the amended use of PHOs would present a negligible increase in risk and would be safe under conditions of intended use. The FDA denied the petition, stating there was insufficient information to conclude the use of PHOs was safe.

However, this process resulted in an extension of the compliance date for certain uses of PHOs, including the conditions covered in the petition by GMA. Rocco Rinaldi, secretary-general of the International Food and Beverage Alliance, a global food manufacturer organization, commented on the necessity to remove trans fat:21

"We call on food producers in our sector to take prompt action and we stand ready to support effective measures to work toward the elimination of industrially produced trans fats and ensure a level playing field in this area."

Not the First Time GMA Sought to Violate Your Rights

This is not the first time GMA has sought to protect their financial interests at your cost. Many of the companies represented by the GMA are pesticide producers and junk food manufacturers who seek to ensure their subsidized, genetically engineered and chemically dependent junk food remains a staple in your diet.

During the 2013 ballot campaign to label GMOs in Washington state, the organization even resorted to using an illegal process to hide the identity of members who donated funds to the opposing campaign, thereby shielding them from consumer backlash.22 The move helped them defeat the ballot campaign by a 1 percent margin. GMA was ultimately sued for money laundering and intentional violation of state campaign disclosure laws, being found guilty and ordered to pay $18 million in fines.

Once it became known GMA members had also paid tens of millions of dollars to defeat GMO labeling in California, the Organic Consumers Association called for a boycott on products owned by GMA members, including organic and natural brands.23 The aim was to send a message to the industry that consumers would no longer tolerate lies, deception and lack of transparency.

Not long afterward, some of the largest members of the organization began leaving the GMA and severing ties with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), the propaganda arm of the GMA, which helps create and promote science-like research that supports the member's interests. For more information on how you can participate in dismantling this "fake science," see "Lobbying Group for Processed Food Industry Teeters on Brink of Extinction — Will Its Science Propaganda Arm Follow Suit?"

Fat Replacement May Be as Bad or Worse Than Trans Fat

To eliminate trans fats in processed foods manufacturers must replace it with another type of fat. Those oils often include canola oil and soybean oils, primary sources of linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated omega-6 fat. Although some health professionals continue to promote these oils,24 they are far from ideal as they contain loads of oxidized omega-6 fat,25 which the majority of Americans already consume too much of.

What's worse, vegetable oils are highly unstable and have the worrisome problem of degrading into toxic oxidation products when heated. One category called aldehydes are highly inflammatory and have been linked to heart disease and Alzheimer's. As noted by Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist and author of "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet," more than 100 dangerous oxidation products have been found in a single piece of chicken fried in vegetable oil.

So, while trans fats are now widely recognized as harmful and are in the process of being completely eliminated worldwide, we still face a tremendous problem, as many restaurants and food manufacturers are simply reverting back to using regular vegetable oils such as peanut, corn and soy oil, which may actually be more harmful than trans fats when heated. To learn more about this, see my previous interview with Teicholz.

Your healthiest option is to limit or eliminate consumption of processed foods, consuming the majority of your energy from whole foods and pastured, organically raised meat and dairy. This will eliminate trans fat from your diet. Then, make sure you use a healthy fat for cooking. Among the healthiest are tallow (a hard fat that comes from cows), lard (from pigs), real butter made from raw, grass fed milk and organic coconut oil.