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Evidence Piles Up for Banning Trans Fats

WHO wants them eliminated from global food supply (Apr. 4)

Banning the use of trans fats in the preparation of foodstuffs is one of the most effective ways to prevent some of the world’s major killer diseases, but many governments aren’t taking such action because they don’t think bans work, according to a study from the University of Sydney published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.

Lead author Shauna M. Downs said trans fats policies in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Korea over the last two decades have proven to be effective in removing trans fats from the food supply.

She said the new study’s findings were particularly relevant for low- and middle-income countries, where such measures have been identified as a “best buy” policy for health — i.e., one that is expected to provide a high return on investment in terms of health gains.

“We found, for example, that a national ban in Denmark virtually eliminated trans fats from the food supply, while local bans in Canada and the U.S.A. were successful in removing trans fats from fried foods,” Downs said.

“While some of the government policies we studied imposed voluntary self-regulation and others took mandatory measures, such as labeling, local and national bans on trans fats proved to be the most effective policies for removing trans fats,” she added. “Our findings show that these policies are not only feasible and achievable, they are also likely to improve public health.”

Trans fats — also known as trans fatty acids — are naturally found in dairy and meat products but are also generated by industrial processes that produce hard fats from vegetable oils. Industrially produced trans fats are also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The consumption of trans fats is associated with an increased risk of noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, however, are favored by the food industry and fast food outlets because they are cheap, have a long shelf life, are semisolid at room temperature, and can withstand repeated heating.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the elimination of trans fats from the global food supply in response to the rise in the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, said the new study was important because it gave an overview of current policy approaches and compared their effectiveness.

“It provides a rationale for strong regulations, such as national bans, and challenges voluntary approaches, given that their outcomes have been less satisfactory than mandatory measures,” he said.

Sources: University of Sydney; April 4, 2013; and WHO Bulletin; April 2013.

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