Washington, DC, 23 September 2018 (PAHO/WHO) – Industrially produced trans-fatty acids (TFAs) have been conclusively linked to the development of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the Americas Region. Policies must be developed to eliminate trans-fatty acids in processed and ultra-processed food to protect public health, warned experts from the Region.

Health leaders gathered to discuss the challenges of advancing toward eliminating trans-fat during a high-level panel: “Trans Fat Free Americas”, organized as a side event to the Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) 56th Directing Council.

“The aim of this panel is to inspire member states to tackle the issue of trans-fats,” said Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Assistant Director of PAHO, while introducing the theme of the discussion. “Diseases caused by trans-fat are not diseases you can transmit. They are diseases that are fully preventable. So, action must be taken.”

In 2008, countries of the Americas signed the Declaration of Rio de Janeiro, which aimed to reduce the presence of trans-fatty acids in oils and margarines to below 2% of their total fat, and below 5% of total fat in processed foods. Despite this declaration, however, little progress has been made and few countries have adopted policies to eliminate trans-fats from the food chain.

While trans-fat can be found naturally in dairy products such as butter and cheese, the majority of the trans-fat in our diets comes from industrially processed hydrogenated vegetable oil, which alters the metabolism of fats in our blood, leading to cardiovascular disease.

“Eliminating trans-fat would enable us to prevent around half a million deaths per year in the world,” said the Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Francesco Branca.

In order to assist countries in eliminating industrially produced trans-fats from the global food supply, WHO has created a step-by-step guide, the REPLACE action package, which includes six areas of action to support governments to ensure the prompt, complete and sustained elimination of industrially-produced trans-fat from the food supply.

Strategies from Panama and Canada

During the panel, the Minister of Health of Panama, Miguel Mayo, discussed the strategy that his country has taken towards eliminating industrially produced trans-fats from the food chain.

“In Panama, we refer to noncommunicable diseases as “socially-transmitted diseases” because they are affected by our social behavior,” he said. In order to reduce “socially-transmitted diseases we must change the lifestyle and the eating-style of our populations”.

Mayo highlighted that in order to reduce NCDs and the economic burden that these diseases have on Panama’s health system, the country has developed a strategy to tackle NCDs, including nutritional warning labels on processed food, as well the production of food guidelines for schools.

Sarah Lawley, Director General, Office of International Affairs for the Health Portfolio of Health Canada, emphasized that decisions on trans-fat and hydrogenated oils are just one element of a much broader health agenda in her country. Nutritional warning labels were implemented in Canada in 2007, but while this led to progress in helping the population make healthier food choices, many foods still contained high levels of trans-fat. The country therefore issued a mandate to eliminate trans-fat in industrially produced food in 2015.

“The process of eliminating trans-fat was not a quick fix, as it required consecutive decisions from Ministers of Health,” said Lawley. “But it was a public health process that recognized that without decisions made by the government, as much as you ask consumers to make healthier choices, you often have to help them do this.”

Following the panel, country representatives raised the issue of reluctance from manufacturers as a potential barrier when developing policies to eliminate trans-fat from processed foods.

“While it is important to include the food industry in discussions about eliminating trans-fat so that they can prepare for how they may be impacted, sometimes the decisions that are made for the benefit of public health are not very popular,” said Lawley. “This is why political will is so important.”

This sentiment was also echoed by the Minister of Health of Panama. “The process is not easy because the industry feels it is a threat. You have to raise awareness using scientific evidence that you are doing the right thing. Political will is necessary and fundamental,” he said.

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— 56th PAHO Directing Council