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Better Butter: After decades of talk, countries finally act on trans fats

Better Butter: After decades of talk, countries finally act on trans fats

Picture of William Heisel

One of the first landmarks in the study of dietary fats for policy action took place in Rome in 1977. A joint United Nations expert group comprising researchers and policy experts from the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization spent a week talking about the “Role of Dietary Fats and Oils in Human Nutrition.” Studies and expert opinions began to pile up after that.

It took until 2002, however, when another UN expert panel came together for there to be a recommendation saying that trans fatty acids should make up less than 1 percent of a person’s total energy intake. That recommendation was then transformed by the WHO into a “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health” that had had five major diet components, including one related to fat. The strategy asked policymakers to consider these recommendations “when preparing national policies and dietary guidelines, taking into account the local situation:”

  • Achieve energy balance and a healthy weight
  • Limit energy intake from total fats and shift fat consumption away from saturated fats to unsaturated fats and towards the elimination of trans-fatty acids
  • Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and legumes, whole grains and nuts
  • Limit the intake of free sugars
  • Limit salt (sodium) consumption from all sources and ensure that salt is iodized.

The strategy was endorsed by the 57th World Health Assembly – an annual meeting of the world’s top health officials – in May 2004.

What took so long and what caused the countries finally to act?

The science around trans fats was largely unsettled and, as with so much of diet, there’s still debate. But by the early 2000s, though, there was a clear consensus that trans fats were mostly harmful, that they could be isolated in the diet, and that they could be eliminated or replaced. In 2003, Denmark was the first country to put strict limits in place.

What caused countries and, through them, the WHO to act was that countries worldwide were seeing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer making more and more of their populations sick. The “Global Strategy” authors wrote:

Globally, the burden of non-communicable diseases has rapidly increased. In 2001 noncommunicable diseases accounted for almost 60% of the 56 million deaths annually and 47% of the global burden of disease. In view of these figures and the predicted future growth in this disease burden, the prevention of noncommunicable diseases presents a major challenge to global public health.

The strategy did not merely call on governments to limit the amount of trans fats in food. It also asked industry to act first. It said that food makers should:

Limit the levels of saturated fats, trans fatty acids, free sugars and salt in existing products … Practice responsible marketing that supports the strategy, particularly with regard to the promotion and marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt, especially to children.

In other words, no more Happy Meals.

After the global strategy was put in place, many more governments followed the WHO’s lead and Denmark’s example, some of them limiting trans fats – such as Austria and New York City – and others just dipping their toes in the policy pool by proposing mandatory food labels – like Canada and, at least initially, Argentina.

I’ll write about some of those actions in future posts. 

Related post

Better Butter: Trans fat limits becoming more popular in fight against disease

[Photo by Neil Turner via Flickr.]

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