The Plan to Eliminate Trans Fats Once and for All

“An unnecessary toxic chemical that kills,” in WHO’s words. Photo: jdwfoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Today, the World Health Organization — the U.N.’s public-health arm — announced a plan intended to help eradicate the world’s trans fats. The ambitious initiative figures that by 2023, the organization can convince nations to either ban those fats and oils — which are linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths per year — or food companies to substitute healthier alternatives. The program is called REPLACE (which stands for “Review dietary sources, promote use of healthier fats, legislate, assess changes, create awareness, and enforce”). In a statement, WHO’s head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the prospect of finally eradicating trans fats “a global win in the fight against cardiovascular disease.”

The plan largely targets South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African countries, where use of trans fats is still pretty high. Those nations, however, picked up the habit initially thanks to Western food conglomerates — trans fats do occur in tiny natural quantities in meat and cheese (they’re therefore thought to be far less harmful), but in the 1950s they became an industrial product manufactured for margarine, shortenings like Crisco, packaged pastries, and nearly anything fried.

As their use rose, so did coronary artery disease in the West. Likewise, where they’ve been banned in the West, the number of heart attacks has dropped. Consuming even a small amount increases LDL — that’s the bad kind of cholesterol — in your body while reducing the good one (HDL). Outside of being a cheap ingredient with a long shelf life, trans fats also provide essentially no other utility.

Big Food dragged its feet on cutting back for years because it claimed that things like doughnuts, frosting, and frozen pizza wouldn’t taste the same. But it’s not clear that people can even tell once trans fats have been removed from their foods. Food companies undoubtedly know this, yet many still haven’t bothered to entirely rid their products of bad fats. The Grocery Manufacturers Association put out a statement late last week defending the tiny number that are left.

The thing is, other multinational food companies and even entire countries have cut them out completely. Cargill has quit producing them, instead substituting a blend of palm oil and healthier vegetable oils like canola and sunflower. Mondelez, the maker of Oreo, thinks its products will be free of partially hydrogenated oil — trans fat — by year’s end, and Nestlé tells The Wall Street Journal that it’s cut trans fats by 99.8 percent, and expects to soon reach “complete removal” of any kind derived from PHOs. In 2003, Denmark was the first country to legislate against their use; consumers hardly seemed to notice, and Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Iceland followed suit. Later, New York City and California also moved to limit the amount restaurants could put in food — it got them mocked in Middle America as nanny states at the time, but certainly hasn’t affected the food quality in either place.

That’s also probably why, for this initiative, WHO is partnering with Tom Frieden, the New York health commissioner who got the trans-fat ban passed. Food companies know these fats are “easily replaceable,” he argues in an interview today with CNN: “Only your heart will know the difference — and that’s why the call of the initiative to become trans fat–free by 2023 is so very important.”

The Plan to Eliminate Trans Fats Once and for All