Help us make food healthier. It's time to banish trans fat from our lives.

Trans fat is a killer: Up to 500,000 people a year die worldwide from the consequences of eating it. Trans fat increases LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, the compound that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks and deaths from heart disease.

Most trans fat comes from artificial, industrially produced, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHO). It is used in many baked foods, frying oils, fried foods and hardened fats, like margarine and vegetable ghee. They are cheap and increase the shelf life of processed food.

But they have no known health benefit and can be readily replaced with other ingredients to preserve taste and consistency. They do nothing but harm our hearts; in essence, they are the tobacco of food products.

Good news, there's an easy fix

And yet it would be so simple to eliminate them. PHO can easily be substituted with other vegetable oils that are healthier, no more expensive and taste good too, such as high-oleic vegetable oils.

In 2018, the World Health Organization called for the elimination of industrially produced trans fat from the global food supply by the end of 2023. Since then, we have been supporting countries seeking to prohibit trans fat and replace it with healthier oils.

There are two best-practice policy alternatives:

  • A national limit of 2 grams of industrially produced trans fat per 100 grams of total fat in all foods.

  • A national ban on the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils (a major source of trans fat).

To date, more than 40 countries accounting for more than a third of the world’s population have implemented one of WHO’s best-practice policies. A further 17 countries are using less restrictive policies, but are still on a path toward implementing recommended best practices.

This is remarkable progress, with an almost sixfold increase in the number of people protected by best-practice policies since the launch of the initiative.

The results are clear. In Denmark, the first country to eliminate trans fat in 2004, studies show that there has been a decrease in mortality from heart disease.

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The global effort is underway

However, time is of the essence if we are to achieve the goal of elimination by the end of this year.

Many nations are heading in the right direction. For example, the United States has passed a law banning the production and use of partially hydrogenated oils in its food supply.

Increasingly, upper-, middle- and lower-middle-income countries – such as Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Paraguay, the Philippines and Ukraine – are implementing these policies. Best-practice policies are being considered in Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. If adopted, Nigeria would be the second and most populous country in Africa to put a best-practice trans fat elimination policy in place.

Governments play a key role in the elimination of trans fat, but to reach our goal it is essential to engage industry – the producers of raw materials and final food products.
Governments play a key role in the elimination of trans fat, but to reach our goal it is essential to engage industry – the producers of raw materials and final food products.

However, nine of the 16 countries with the highest estimated proportion of coronary heart disease deaths caused by trans fat still do not have a best-practice policy in place: Australia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and South Korea.

Governments play a key role in the elimination of trans fat, but to reach our goal it is essential to engage industry – the producers of raw materials and final food products.

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By replacing industrial trans fat with healthier oils and fats in their products, food manufacturers, the food service sector and suppliers of oils and fats can help to protect people from the harms of trans fat, even in countries without national legislation. If they so choose, these companies could have an almost unparalleled impact on global health.

Removing trans fat requires us all

In 2019, the International Food and Beverage Alliance, representing several of the world’s largest food companies, committed to eliminating trans fat from their products by the end of 2023. More recently, one of the world’s largest producers of oils used in food, Cargill, committed to the same target. This is to be lauded. WHO is in contact with other producers, which we are encouraging to follow suit.

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In addition to action by governments and industry, the work of civil society is also vital. One such organization, Resolve to Save Lives, plays an instrumental role in advocating for the elimination of trans fat and advancing key policy changes in countries.

WHO is spearheading the global push toward elimination. Under the newly established Validation Program for Trans Fat Elimination, WHO will recognize a country's successes in implementing best practice policy along with effective monitoring and enforcement.

One of WHO’s top priorities is to support countries to promote health and prevent disease by addressing its root causes in the air people breathe, the conditions in which they live and work, and the food they eat. Prevention is not only better than cure, it’s cheaper. Eliminating trans fat is therefore a powerful way of preventing heart disease and the massive costs it incurs for individuals, families and economies in medical treatment and lost productivity.

Food should be a source of health, not a cause of disease. It’s time to banish trans fat to the dustbin of history.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the director-general of the World Health Organization. Follow him on Twitter: @DrTedros

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can processed foods be healthy? Eliminating trans fat is first step.