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The role of dietary fats and oils in human nutrition is one of the most complex and controversial areas of investigations in nutrition science. The joint WHO/FAO Export Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Disease held at Geneva in 2002 (WHO, 2003 and Nishida & Yany, 2009) recognised that the growing epidemic of chronic disease afflicting both developed and developing countries was related to dietary and lifestyle changes.

Trans fat foods
Trans fat foods

In the last two decades, rapid expansion in several relevant scientific fields and in the amount of population-based epidemiological data has clarified the role of diet in preventing and controlling the morbidity and premature mortality resulting from various non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Food products containing unsaturated fats are susceptible to rancidity with attendant unpleasant taste and odour as a manifestation of their short shelf life. This thus led to research to create a more stable form of unsaturated fat that had the potential for a significantly extended shelf life and improving the value of a variety of foods.

Trans fats are fats produced from the industrial process of hydrogenation, whereby molecular hydrogen (H2) is added to vegetable oil, converting liquid fat to a semi-solid and stable fat that have a long shelf life.  The first food product developed that contained trans fats was Crisco vegetable shortening, a flavorless cooking fat, solid at room temperature that was introduced in 1911 by the Procter and Gamble Company (P&G), an American multinational consumer goods corporation in Ohio, USA (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016). Common examples of foods that contain trans fats includes bread and bakery products; products from fast food establishments such as pizzas, doughnuts, burgers; pre-packaged biscuits and confectioneries including wafers; and margarines, shortenings and cooking oils.

Trans fats have been linked to increases in the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancers, dementia and death.  According to new estimates by the World Health Organization, over 250, 000 persons died yearly resulting from complications associated with the consumption of foods high in trans fats.  This statistic has led to the call for the global elimination of industrially produced trans-fat by 2023.

Industrially produced Trans Fatty Acids (iTFAs) are unsaturated fats chemically manufactured via passage of hydrogen through oils for them to be used as solid fats.  Bacteria produce naturally occurring TFAs in the guts of animals (ruminants – cows, goats, sheep etc.), but the vast majority of TFAs are produced industrially by hydrogenation.  iTFAs have been a commercially very successful product, becoming very popular in the diet during the 20th century.

WHO analysed iTFAs’ health impact and found that iTFAs increase overall mortality, Particularly cardiovascular mortality (Death due to heart and blood system-related conditions). Over half a million deaths per year are attributable to iTFA consumption. Therefore, WHO recommends that TFAs, both natural and industrial, do not exceed 1% of energy intake per day.

iTFAs are common in baked goods, pre-packaged foods, and some cooking oils, are a significant contributor to cardiovascular diseases (CVD) worldwide, estimated to contribute to over half a million deaths every year. iTFAs have no known health benefits and can readily and safely be replaced in foods without impacting their consistency and taste.

Small and medium-sized oil, fat, and food producers often lack the capacity and know-how to replace TFAs.  Therefore, regulations targeting iTFAs should take this into account, for example, through long enough transition periods (for enforcement of regulations) and technical support for efficient replacement with alternatives. Knowledge transfer between large and small producers could be an additional solution.

Elimination of industrially produced TFA from food is feasible, and some countries are taking action, although until recently this has been mostly in wealthy countries.  Efforts need to move beyond high-income countries so that everyone can benefit from TFA elimination. In May 2018, WHO launched the REPLACE action package to help governments eliminate TFA from their nations’ food supplies and replace these harmful compounds with healthier oils and fats by the year 2023.

REPLACE stands for six strategic action areas that ensure the prompt, complete, and sustained elimination of industrially produced trans fats from the food supply:
•   Review dietary sources of industrially produced trans-fat and the landscape for necessary policy change.
•   Promote the replacement of industrially produced trans-fat with healthier fats and oils.
•   Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially produced trans-fat.
• Assess and monitor trans-fat content in the food supply and changes in trans-fat consumption in the population.
• Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans fat among policymakers, producers, suppliers, and the public.
• Enforce compliance with policies and regulations. The goal is to replace TFAs in all countries of the world by 2023.

Everyone across our food chain has an important role to play – and that means you too! Through your everyday actions you can also become a food hero and make healthy food and sustainable habits a part of your lifestyle.  Please tell political decision-makers and food makers to restrict and #REPLACE trans-fat, to expand access to healthy foods.

By Dr. Jerome Mafeni

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