UN health agency aims to wipe out trans fats world­wide

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - HEALTH - By Mike Sto­bbe

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.

“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,” said Rocco Ri­naldi, sec­re­tary­gen­eral of the In­ter­na­tional Food and Bev­er­age Al­liance.

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. “The world is now set­ting its sights on to­day’s lead­ing killers — par­tic­u­larly heart disease, which kills more peo­ple than any other cause in al­most ev­ery coun­try,” said Frieden, pres­i­dent of Resolve to Save Lives, a New-York-based project of an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Vi­tal Strate­gies.

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 grad­u­ally 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 man­u­fac­tur­ers 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 took steps to finish the job of elim­i­nat­ing trans fats, call­ing 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.

“The re­moval of trans fats from the food sup­ply as an ad­di­tive counts as one of the ma­jor pub­lic health vic­to­ries of the last decade,” said Laura MacCleery, pol­icy di­rec­tor for the Washington, D.C.-based ad­vo­cacy group, Cen­ter for Science in the Pub­lic In­ter­est.

The As­so­ci­ated Press Health & Science De­part­ment re­ceives sup­port from the Howard Hughes Med­i­cal In­sti­tute’s De­part­ment of Science Ed­u­ca­tion. The AP is solely re­spon­si­ble for all con­tent.

DAR­RON CUM­MINGS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, a Milky-Way candy bar is deep-fried in oil free of trans fats at a food booth at the In­di­ana State Fair in In­di­anapo­lis. In­di­ana was the first state to re­quire the switch at its state fair. On Mon­day the head of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion called on all na­tions to elim­i­nate ar­ti­fi­cial trans fats from foods in the next five years.

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