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Nutrition Experts Call For 'Trans Fat Free Americas'

Armen Hareyan's picture

Trans Fats

PAHO task force cites scientific evidence that transfatty acids are "toxic" to human health.

Experts on nutrition and public health today called for eliminating transfatty acids from food supplies throughout the Western Hemisphere, at a special task force meeting convened by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

"To put it simply, trans fats are a toxic substance in our diets," said Enrique Jacoby, PAHO regional advisor on healthy eating and healthy living. "There is abundant evidence of this. There is also a consensus among our task force experts that phasing trans fat out of food supplies in the Americas is not only desirable but a feasible goal."

"This is something that can be done by major food producers in a matter of months or at most a couple of years, and it's being done by several food companies already," said Ricardo Uauy, president of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences and professor of public health nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Uauy and Jacoby were among more than two dozen experts from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean who participated in the special task force formed to consider a PAHO proposal for a "Trans Fat-Free Americas." A draft of the group's conclusions will be circulated in the coming months for feedback from PAHO member governments, academics and other experts, and representatives of the food industry.

Scientific studies have shown that transfatty acids contribute to heart disease by raising levels of so-called "bad cholesterol" (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), lowering levels of "good cholesterol" (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL), and damaging the cells in the linings of blood vessels, contributing to inflammation and blockage and leading to heart attacks.

A reduction of just 2-4 percent (of calories) in trans fat consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean could prevent between 50,000 and 230,000 heart attacks per year, said Dariush Mozaffarian, a researcher and assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Trans fats are found primarily in products that contain partially hydrogenated oils, whose longer shelf life and texture make them attractive for restaurants and food processors but which have negative effects on human health. Partial hydrogenation not only creates trans fats but also "destroys the healthy Omega-3 fats that are naturally in vegetable oils," said Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Regulatory efforts to eliminate transfatty acids from food supplies are already under way in countries including Denmark and Canada, and in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, a number of food producers have voluntarily begun removing trans fats from their products, including Kraft Foods and Wendy's in the United States and Unilever in Europe. "This has turned out to be good for business," said Uauy.

In the Latin American region, health officials in Costa Rica and, more recently, Argentina have been working with food producers to drastically reduce trans fats, while Brazil is using labeling requirements, consumer warnings, and restrictions on advertising.

Experts at the PAHO meeting urged cooperation between health officials and private producers to accelerate the process of eliminating trans fats from the region.

"This is an area where we need to work alongside industry to develop a timetable for removing trans fats from the foods we eat and to help industry replace them with healthier alternatives," said Jacoby. "Fortunately, the food industry is receptive to these kinds of efforts, especially when consumers voice their concerns."

Members of the task force emphasized that not all fats are bad. "We are not just talking about reducing trans fats but about increasing healthy fats in the diet. This is a positive message," said Uauy.

This week's task force meeting on "Trans Fat Free Americas" is part of larger PAHO efforts to address the growing burden of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of premature death throughout the Americas, as well as stroke and diabetes, which are increasing at alarming speed in the region.

PAHO's efforts in this area also include a campaign "Let's Eat Healthy, Live Well and Get Moving, America" to help member countries promote better nutrition and increased physical activity in their populations. These initiatives fall within the framework of PAHO's Regional Strategy on Chronic Disease Prevention and Control and its Strategy on Nutrition in Health and Development.