There's a silent killer in your food. Trans fats.


It is no exaggeration to say that trans fat kills. Trans fat is naturally present in small amounts in dairy and red meat, but most trans fat is industrially produced by changing the chemistry of vegetable oils in a process known as hydrogenation, often appearing on food labels as ‘partially hydrogenated oil’.

This common ingredient contributes significantly to elevating the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), which has doubled in prevalence over the past 30 years, from 270 million cases in 1990 to over 520 million in 2019. Today, it is the world’s leading cause of death and is estimated to take 18 million lives every year - close to half of 41 million total deaths globally. One-third of these 18 million deaths take place prematurely, before the age of 70, cutting short lives and livelihoods.

As CVD often requires expensive long-term treatment, this also contributes to a heavy economic burden on health systems and communities everywhere, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where health budgets are already tightly stretched and people are much more likely to pay out-of-pocket for treatment. In fact, 60% of people who are living with an NCD are driven to financial catastrophe, many of whom are in LMICs.

The rise in cardiovascular disease can be largely attributed to increasing exposure to risk factors over the past few decades, including heart-harming ultra-processed foods as well as tobacco, alcohol, air pollution and physical inactivity. This makes a strong case for prevention measures, and there is one in particular that is being implemented in more and more countries around the world in order to save lives and money - removing trans fats from the food supply chain.

Experience from food manufacturers shows that trans fat can be eliminated (it may take two to three years for certain foods) and replaced with healthier alternatives without altering taste or increasing cost. Therefore, there is no reason to continue using this toxic ingredient.

Eliminating trans fats - a savvy investment

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), trans fat elimination is a cost-effective and feasible intervention: a so-called ‘best buy’. The best buy initiatives cost less than US$1 per person to implement, and return on average US$7 for every dollar invested. Best buys for healthy diets have the highest return on investment, at nearly US$12 for every dollar invested. That’s why, to help countries transition towards the 2023 target for trans fat elimination, WHO launched the REPLACE program in 2018, the first global initiative intended to completely eliminate an NCD risk factor through clear policy measures.

The benefits of these policy measures to public health and economies are more than compelling. It is estimated that trans fat elimination could save 17 million lives worldwide by 2040, with the impact being largest in LMICs, where 90% of deaths related to cardiovascular disease are occurring. Moreover, communities of lower socio-economic status in all countries tend to consume more trans fats, most often because of barriers to healthier foods such as higher cost and less availability.

Progress around the globe

As of January 2022, mandatory iTFA policies were in effect for 4.6 billion people in 58 countries. To fully protect populations from trans fat, 41 countries have put best-practice policies in effect, covering 2.8 billion people (nearly 40% of the global population). This is impressive progress, but there’s much more to be achieved.

Most best practice policies have been adopted in high-income or upper-middle-income countries in Europe and the Americas. However, India sent a signal of hope to the international community by becoming the first LMIC to implement a best practice policy in January 2022. This means that an additional 1.4 billion people are now fully protected, but most people living in LMICs are still at risk.

However, more LMICs are expected to continue along this path, with the Philippines expected to implement best practice regulations in January 2023. Is your government taking the right steps to eliminate this toxic substance from your food? If they’re not, act on NCDs by reaching out and demanding that they do!

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