Delay to phase out trans fats exposes 5bn people to health risks

Tuesday January 31 2023
Doughnuts, French fries and fried chicken

Doughnuts, French fries and fried chicken. Five billion people globally, most of them in Africa, continue to consume deadly trans fats, as nations dither on enforcement to eliminate their manufacture. PHOTO | ROBERT SULLIVAN | AFP


Five billion people globally, most of them in Africa, continue to consume deadly trans fats, as nations dither on enforcement to eliminate their manufacture.

A report by the World Health Organisation released Monday, warned that proliferation of the partially hydrogenated oils it has been calling on countries to ban since the “Trans Fat-Free Americas” (TFA) Declaration of Rio de Janeiro in 2008, continue to kill people.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said even though countries are responding to the call to action to eliminate industrially produced TFA from the global food supply, only 36 percent of member countries’ population is complying with the directive.

The report by the WHO Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, and Resolve to Save Lives, highlights achievements towards the elimination of these trans-fatty acids a form of unsaturated fat, commonly found in packaged foods, baked goods, cooking oils, and spreads, over the years, underlining progress over October 2021 – September 2022. WHO has a target for member states to eliminate these globally by 2023.

500,000 deaths every year

“The elimination of industrially produced trans-fatty acids, which are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and are linked with up to 500,000 deaths every year, is key to the (riddance) of the deadly non-communicable diseases.


‘‘That is why governments, civil society and leading private sector have committed to eliminating these toxic chemicals from the global food supply by the end of 2023,” said Dr Tedros in his brief on the findings of the WHO report.

Mandatory TFA policies are currently in effect for 3.4 billion people in 60 countries (43 percent of the world population); of these, 43 countries have best-practice policies in effect, covering 2.8 billion people (36 percent of the world population).

Most policy actions to date have been in higher-income countries, and in the Americas and Europe.

“None of the people living in low-income countries enjoy these protections,” said the report.

On the red

Notably, all the East African region countries are on the red, with no apparent best-practice TFA policies. And even though Kenya has a national policy commitment to eliminate TFA, it is yet to put in place corresponding measures and has yet to establish a monitoring mechanism for mandatory TFA limits.

On the continent, only South Africa has had a best-practice regulation in place since 2011. Nigeria is expected to pass a best-practice policy soon, according to WHO. Ethiopia and Cabo Verde, already have complementary measures.

Grim, deadly toll

Cardiovascular diseases continue to be the leading cause of death globally, and are responsible for more than one third of premature deaths each year.

Most of these deaths take place in low- and middle-income countries, some of which are also the least committal in undertaking steps towards elimination of the harmful fats.

Coronary heart disease is the biggest killer, responsible for around 16 percent of deaths worldwide.

Dr Ghebreyesus said trans-fatty acids have no known health benefits, but instead bear huge health risks and called on the food industry to help make up for lost time, by replacing industrially produced trans-fatty acids with healthier oils and fats across their product range.

In Ethiopia, a best-practice policy for TFA has been included in the draft Unhealthy Foods Control Proclamation, which limits TFA to 2 percent in all fats, oils and foods.

The proclamation, which also addresses products high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats, has not yet been adopted.

Introduction of best-practice policies across Africa would potentially save an estimated 20 400 lives per year (GBD study, 2019).

Oils market mapping

WHO Africa has been working with Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) and RTSL on a regional approach to TFA elimination in the Eastern African Community. GHAI is conducting a regional partially hydrogenated oils market mapping of producers, manufacturers and importers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

The mapping will identify sources of industrially produced TFA in the EAC food supply and provide evidence for the most appropriate approach to TFA elimination across the region. Civil society organizations’ work in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda will complement regional EAC work to introduce a best-practice policy applicable to all countries.

Covid-19 pandemic

Dr Ghebreyesus suggested the heavy burden of cardiovascular diseases may have contributed to the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Food manufacturers, the food service sector and suppliers of oils and fats have the potential to plug the gaps where national legislation is not yet in place. If they so choose, these companies could have an almost unparalleled impact on global health,” he noted.

So far, 60 countries have implemented mandatory policies to eliminate trans-fatty acids.

One of the most important challenges to TFA policy-making faced by countries has been to build adequate laboratory capacity to measure TFA in foods, which is vital for understanding key sources of

TFA in the diet and the baseline situation in countries as well as to monitor compliance and the impact of policies.

WHO is helping countries strengthen laboratory capacity.