Heart disease kills more people around the world than anything else. More than 17 million people die every year of cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes.
It can be difficult to change some of the behaviours that lead to those deaths – but that doesn’t stop researchers from trying to get people to exercise and eat more vegetables.
Eliminating a big chunk of those deaths can be accomplished in an easier way: by banning trans fats (or trans fatty acids).
The use of trans fats leads to about 500,000 cardiovascular disease deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
These products are added to fried foods, baked goods, and snack products, and cause levels of bad cholesterol in blood to spike.
Now the WHO and governments around the world are cracking down. On Monday, the WHO announced a plan calling for governments to ban industrially-produced trans fats within five years.
“Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, said in the WHO announcement statement.
The rise and fall of trans fats
Artificial trans fats were first developed in the early 20th century, when industrial producers realised they could replace butter with partially hydrogenated oils, which have a long shelf life.
When people grew concerned about the potential health effects of saturated fat in the 1950s, food manufacturers began advertising products like margarine or Crisco, which got their fat from partially hydrogenated oils – trans fats – instead of saturated fats (in recent years, many companies selling these products have switched from trans fats to other alternatives).
But replacing saturated fats with partially hydrogenated oils was a bad idea. These products increase the levels of bad LDL-cholesterol (a sign of increased cardiovascular disease risk) and lower levels of good HDL-cholesterol.
Overall, diets high in these fats increase heart disease risk rates by 21 percent and death rates by 28 percent, and they’re also associated with an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes.
Researchers starting suggesting these fats might be dangerous based on signs of their accumulation in autopsies in the late 1950s.
By the 1970s and 80s, a number of health researchers had started to realise these fats might be increasing disease risk – though research indicating this was often suppressed by the food industry, as Julia Belluz reported for Vox.
In the 1990s, several large and prominent studies showed these food products were strongly associated with increased disease risk.
A spreading ban
In 2001, the Danish Nutrition Council suggested the government limit trans fats in foods to improve cardiovascular health. In 2003, a Danish law that limited the amounts of these fats in food was passed.
It worked, with death rates from cardiovascular disease falling faster there than in comparable countries.
Other European countries followed Denmark’s lead. Then, in 2006, New York City passed a law banning trans fats, phasing them out of the city by the summer of 2008.
The prompted all kinds of “Nanny Bloomberg” headlines referencing the mayor at the time. But it worked, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association Cardiology, reducing heart attack and stroke rates in the city.
Under the Obama administration, the FDA finally followed suit nationwide in 2015, with that ban going into full effect next month.
Trans fats are still commonly sold in countries throughout South Asia and Africa, where weaker regulations and stronger pressure by food producers have kept partially hydrogenated oils in circulation.
The WHO’s new policy can’t actually ban trans fats in these countries. But the hope is that the guidelines will encourage governments to enact these bans.
Multinational food producers that have switched away from trans fat products can help local producers make the move to healthier oils, according to the WHO.
It’s possible that within five years, a dangerous substance that increases death rates won’t be in use anymore.