In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated trans fatty acids (TFA) elimination as one of its priority targets, calling for the global elimination of industrially produced TFA by 2023.
Mandatory TFA policies are currently in effect or passed in 62 countries, covering almost half of the global population. Among the countries, 42 have best-practice policies in effect, covering about a third of the global population.
Despite substantial progress, this leaves five billion people worldwide at risk while the global target of elimination TFA by 2023 remains unattainable, according to new report by WHO.
Titled Countdown to 2023, the report is an annual status report published by WHO in collaboration with Resolve to Save Lives (RTSL) to track progress towards the goal of trans fat elimination in 2023.
Industrially produced TFA are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, linked with up to 500,000 deaths per year.
“Trans fat has no known benefit, and huge health risks that incur huge costs for health systems,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“By contrast, eliminating trans fat is cost effective and has enormous benefits for health. Put simply, trans fat is a toxic chemical that kills, and should have no place in food. It’s time to get rid of it once and for all.”
The report defines best-practice TFA policies as a mandatory national limit of 2g of industrially produced TFA per 100g of total fat in all foods, and a mandatory national ban on the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHO).
Over the past year, several additional countries have taken action to eliminate industrially produced TFA as best-practise policies came into effect in India, Uruguay, Oman and Bangladesh, with Ukraine expected to follow suit in October 2023. Meanwhile, best-practice TFA policies are projected to pass soon in Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.
If passed, Nigeria would be the second and most populous country in Africa to put a best-practice trans fat elimination policy in place.
To date, most policy actions have been in higher income countries, mostly in the regions of the Americas and Europe, as well as a number of lower-middle-income countries. No low-income countries have yet adopted a best-practice policy to eliminate trans fat.
As more countries regulate TFA, there are additional advantages of a more consistent operating environment for companies and easier international trade. Countries that are lagging behind in implementing best practice policies may see TFA intakes rising, as manufacturers seek markets where TFA is permitted. Therefore, robust policy action to eliminate TFA is essential even in countries where current TFA intakes are low, said the report.
To date, suppliers of edible oils and fats have been much slower than food manufacturers to remove industrially produced TFA from their products.
An important breakthrough was made in December 2021 when major edible oils supplier Cargill committed to 100 per cent compliance with WHO best practice by the end of 2023.
With edible oils as key ingredients for food manufacturers and the food service sector, the reports noted that Cargill’s commitment will improve products of companies that have not yet made efforts to reduce TFA.
The report also highlighted one of the most important challenges in making TFA policies – building adequate laboratory capacity to measure TFA in foods. To tackle this problem, WHO supports member states to strengthen laboratory capacity through workshops and online discussions with laboratories to troubleshoot issues. Following a global laboratory protocol for measuring TFA in foods published in December 2020, a simplified protocol is slated to be published this year by WHO.
Over the coming years, the focus of WHO and its partners’ efforts will be on countries that are expected to pass best-practice policies.
WHO will also focus on countries that have some interest in introducing a TFA regulation but have not yet taken action or lack the capacity to do so. To support these ambitions, WHO together with RTSL will start a communication campaign in 2023 aiming to further encourage adoption of best-practice FTA policies.
To meet the 2023 target, WHO recommended that countries take the following actions: adopting best-practice policy; investing in monitoring and surveillance; starting discussions on health replacement oils and fats as well as country-specific alternatives, and developing a replacement roadmap; and advocating for regional or subregional regulations.