World Health Organisation aims to wipe out trans fats worldwide

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a plan to help countries wipe out trans fats from the global food supply in the next five years.

The United Nations agency has in the past pushed to exterminate infectious diseases, but now it is aiming to erase a hazard linked to chronic illness.

The UN health agency said eliminating trans fats is critical to preventing deaths worldwide. The WHO estimates that eating trans fats - commonly found in baked and processed foods - leads to the deaths of more than 500,000 people from heart disease every year.

Officials think it can be done in five years because the work is well under way in many countries. Denmark banned trans fats 15 years ago, and since then the United States and more than 40 other higher-income countries have been working on getting the heart-clogging additives out of their food supplies.

The WHO is now pushing middle- and lower-income countries to pick up the fight, said Dr Francesco Branca, director of the WHO's department of nutrition for health and development.

Artificial trans fats are unhealthy substances that are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it solid, like in the creation of margarine or shortening. Health experts say they can be replaced with canola oil or other products. There are also naturally occurring trans fats in some meats and dairy products.

The WHO recommends that no more than 1% of a person's calories come from trans fats.

"Trans fats are a harmful compound that can be removed easily without major cost and without any impact on the quality of the foods," Dr Branca said.

Countries will likely have to use regulation or legislation to compel food makers to make the switch, experts said.

Dr Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention who worked with WHO officials on the call to action, said the move was unprecedented.

"The world is now setting its sights on today's leading killers - particularly heart disease, which kills more people than any other cause in almost every country," said Dr Frieden, president of a New-York-based project called Resolve to Save Lives.

The first trans fatty food to hit the US market was Crisco shortening, which went on sale in 1911. Trans fatty foods became increasingly popular beginning in the 1950s, partly because experts at the time thought they were healthier than cooking with butter or lard.

Food makers liked artificial trans fats because they prolonged product shelf life. They used them in doughnuts, biscuits and deep-fried foods.

But studies gradually revealed that trans fats wreck cholesterol levels in the blood and drive up the risk of heart disease. Health advocates say trans fats are the most harmful fat in the food supply.

In 2006, New York City banned restaurants from serving food with trans fats. The same year the FDA required manufacturers to list trans fat content information on food labels.

Many manufacturers cut back, and studies showed trans fat levels in the blood of middle-aged US adults fell by nearly 60% by the end of the decade.

In 2015, the US FDA took steps to finish the job of eliminating trans fats, calling for manufacturers to stop selling trans fatty foods by June 18, 2018 - a deadline that arrives next month. FDA officials have not said how much progress has been made or how they will enforce their rule against food makers that do not comply.

- Digital Desk and Press Association

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