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WHO urges all countries to ban trans fats

Countries should ban them if necessary, WHO says
Image: Doughnuts
A tray of doughnutsPhilip Toscano / PA Wire/AP file

The World Health Organization (WHO) urged all countries to get rid of trans fats in their food supply, with laws banning them if necessary.

The artery-clogging fats kill half a million people a year and they’re completely unnecessary, the WHO said.

"Why should our children have such an unsafe ingredient in their foods?” asked WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Trans fats are used widely to make cookies, crackers, microwave popcorn and to fry fast food. They’re made by processing liquid oils to make them solid or semi-solid and to make them stay fresh longer than liquid fats. But the chemical process used to make them solid like butter also makes them clog arteries just as butter or lard does.

“Diets high in trans fat increase heart disease risk by 21 percent and deaths by 28 percent,” WHO said.

They’re also found naturally in some meats such as beef and mutton, as well as in dairy products. There’s not a good way to remove trans fats from natural foods, but food policy experts agree there’s no place for artificially made trans fats in human diets.

Nutrition expert Dr. Marion nestle of New York University complained that WHO was not using plain language to tell people about trans fats.

“I wish that dietary recommendations would refer to foods, not nutrients,” she wrote in her blog.

“We don’t eat specific fatty acids,” Nestle added.

“Trans fats appear in highly processed foods. Therefore, they are a euphemism for snack and other foods containing them.”

The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS. As of next month, U.S. food manufacturers may not use trans fats in food products without FDA approval. Some cities, notably New York City, have also banned them.

"New York City eliminated industrially-produced trans fat a decade ago, following Denmark’s lead," said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease control and Prevention who is now CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. "Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed."

Heart attacks and strokes fell by more than 6 percent three years after some New York counties banned trans fats, researchers reported last year.

WHO laid out a six-point route for getting rid of trans fats that includes encouraging the replacement of trans fats with healthier vegetable oils and legislating to make it harder to use them.

“Several high-income countries have virtually eliminated industrially-produced trans fats through legally imposed limits on the amount that can be contained in packaged food,” WHO said.

“Action is needed in low- and middle-income countries, where controls of use of industrially-produced trans fats are often weaker, to ensure that the benefits are felt equally around the world.”

It’s only been since the 1980s that nutritionists began to recognize that trans fats are as unhealthful as saturated fats, found in meat, butter and cheese.

The debate confused the U.S. public, and many people still believe that butter is better for heart health than margarine. That may have been true of the old margarines made using hydrogenated oils, but it's less true now. Butter does raise cholesterol, but margarines made using unsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats do not.

Good substitutes for partially hydrogenated fats and saturated fats are liquid oils such as olive oil, canola oil and safflower.