On last Monday the World Health Organization, the public health arm of the United Nations, announced a new plan to eliminate trans fats worldwide.
The plan, called REPLACE, aims to reduce the number of deaths caused by this particularly vicious type of fat. The WHO estimates that more than 500,000 people per year die from cardiovascular disease caused by trans fat intake through processed foods and some baked goods. Originally popularized after the negative impacts of saturated fatty acids were discovered, trans fats have fallen out of favor as their own health effects have gained prominence.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the organization is “calling on” governments around the world to eliminate trans fats by 2023. While REPLACE is not a mandate, the organization hopes it will help governments swiftly eliminate these fats.
Here’s what that means for your diet.
Most of the trans fats you’re eating are probably made from soy beans. They take the form of partially hydrogenated oils, which are used to replace lard or shortening in packaged products. In fact, the advent of partially hydrogenated oil was one of the developments that led to the success of packaged foods across the U.S. and Europe after World War II. These types of oils last longer and make possible a food economy where products are manufactured long before they’re sold.
More palm, canola, and sunflower oil
Fear not, the move towards eliminating trans fats doesn’t mean you’ll have to kiss your precious Oreos goodbye. Food and food-oil manufacturers are working on replacements for the partially hydrogenated oils they’ve relied on for so many years, and palm, canola, and sunflower oil are widely used. While some of these other oils carry health and environmental concerns, they are generally seen as better overall than partially hydrogenated oils.
You probably won’t notice much of a change
If you live in the U.S. or Europe, you’ve probably been eating a largely trans fat-free diet for years. More than 20 nations have restricted the use of trans fats in the last 15 years, and major food manufacturers have practically eliminated the use of trans fats in their foods: Nestle has eliminated trans fats from 99.8% of the oils they use; members of the International Food and Beverage Alliance, which include Kellogg, General Mills, and McDonald’s, have eliminated trans fats from 98.8% of their global product portfolios; and Mondelez International, the maker of Oreos, is on track to eliminate all partially hydrogenated oils from its products by the end of the year.
Moreover, it’s possible to eliminate trans fats without changing the flavor of food, so even if you haven’t already been eating this way, you probably won’t know the difference.
But it’ll be a great equalizer
While the majority of products in Europe and the U.S. no longer contain trans fats, the rest of the world continues to use them and suffer the negative health outcomes. Moreover, the foods that still contain trans fats in the U.S. and Europe tend to disproportionately affect the poor, because foods containing trans fats tend to be cheaper. The WHO’s hope is that a global campaign to eliminate trans fats everywhere will lead to better health outcomes for everyone.