Trans fats used in snack foods, baked foods and fried foods are responsible for half a million deaths worldwide each year and must be eliminated from the global food supply, the World Health Organization (WHO) says today. Most of western Europe has already acted to reduce industrially made trans fats from factory-made foods. Denmark, like New York, which followed its lead, has an outright ban. Big food companies elsewhere have been under intense pressure to use substitutes. In the UK, the latest national diet and nutrition survey shows average intake of trans fats is well below the recommended upper limit of 2% of food energy, at 0.5-0.7%. Although companies manufacturing processed food in the UK do not use trans fats any more, the fats are in some cheap foods imported from other countries.
The WHO is calling on all governments to take action, including passing laws or regulations to rid their food supply of industrial trans fats. WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said eliminating trans fats would “represent a major victory in the global fight against cardiovascular disease.” The WHO is targeting industrially made trans fats, but trans fats are also contained in milk, butter and cheese derived from ruminants, mainly cows and sheep. Dr Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the WHO, said the amounts we eat in dairy products are unlikely to breach the health guidelines. “We are saying that trans fats contained in those products have the same effect as industrial trans fats – we are not able to tell the difference,” he said. “But the amount contained in dairy products is much less.” The WHO is saying that trans fats should be limited to less than 1% of food energy, which it equates to a maximum of 2.2g of trans fats in a diet of 2,000 calories a day. To get 2.2g of trans fatty acids, you would have to eat 150g of 30% saturated fat cheese or 50g of butter. “How many people eat 50g of butter?” asked Branca. “You can have your cheese, your butter or your litre of milk. That is fine.” Lower-fat milk is also better than high-fat. Trans fats are more common in eastern Europe and particularly in countries like India, where they are in vanaspati, a type of vegetable ghee.
Recent guidance on saturated fats from the WHO said they should be limited to 10% of food energy per day. There are still issues over the fats used as substitutes for trans fatty acids in processed meals and cakes and pastries. The WHO says they should be polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable oils. But palm oil and coconut oil are cheap and much used and contain high proportions of saturated fat. The International Food and Beverage Alliance, which represents food giants such as Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo, says it is complying with efforts to eliminate industrial trans fats. “Two years ago, IFBA member companies committed to reducing industrially produced trans fat in their products worldwide to nutritionally insignificant levels by the end of 2018,” said its secretary general, Rocco Renaldi. “Our progress has been significant – at the end of 2017, on an aggregated basis, we estimate that industrially produced trans fat had been removed from 98.8% of IFBA companies’ global product portfolios.” He said the group “call on all food producers in all sectors to join the effort to achieve this public health priority”.
Victoria Taylor, a senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Voluntary removal of trans fats by manufacturers in the UK has paid dividends when it comes to our intakes. National dietary surveys show that intakes have reduced since 2007 and the amount we are consuming is well below the recommended maximums for the UK. “If industrially produced trans fats are removed from foods, this is positive, but if they are being replaced with saturated fats, we would be concerned. We know that saturated fat consumption is more than UK guidelines and diets high in saturated fat are linked to raised cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases.” The call from the WHO came as the all-party parliamentary committee on obesity in the House of Commons published a report warning that “children are exposed to pervasive advertising for deeply unhealthy foods” and called for a 9 pm watershed for junk food adverts. A survey of the public carried out for the committee found that 42% of the public did not feel able to talk to their GP about their weight. Almost everybody who was asked – 94% – believed there was not enough understanding of the causes of obesity. People and politicians continued to believe it was the result of overeating and laziness and therefore self-inflicted, the report said. Most of those who were obese – 88% – said they had been stigmatised, criticised or abused because of their size. The report recommended the government support doctors in an investigation of whether obesity should be classified as a disease, as it is in the US. It should also bring in a new national obesity strategy for adults and children, the report said.
Credit: Sarah Boseley for The Guardian, 14 May 2018.