WHO calls trans fats a 'toxic chemical that kills' — what foods have the substance?

According to the WHO, five billion people are at an increased risk of heart disease and death due to trans fats.

Person reaching for fries with trans fats and pizza in the background.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), five billion people are at an increased risk of heart disease and death due to trans fats. (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Thinking about devouring a piece of cake before bed? Think again.

According to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), five billion people are at an increased risk of heart disease and death due to trans fats.

The 2022 WHO report on global trans fat elimination, published Monday, asked governments to ban the toxic substance, which clog arteries and raise cholesterol.

The WHO issued an appeal in 2018 for trans fats to be eliminated worldwide by 2023 after realizing it caused 500,000 premature deaths every year.

In a news release, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained that the substance has "huge health risks" and expressed his desire to "get rid of it."

"Trans fat has no known benefit, and huge health risks that incur huge costs for health systems," he said. "By contrast, eliminating trans fat is cost effective and has enormous benefits for health. Put simply, trans fat is a toxic chemical that kills, and should have no place in food. It’s time to get rid of it once and for all."

A mixture of trans fats iced chocolate and regular ring doughnuts.
WHO Director-General explained that trans fats have "huge health risks."

Although 43 countries — including Canada — have now implemented best-practice policies, there are more thanfive billion people who still remain unprotected, the UN's health agency said.

Egypt, Australia, South Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Ecuador are among countries that have high rates of heart disease from trans fat and have not enacted policies to remove the substance, which are often found in packaged foods, baked goods, cooking oils and spreads.

Countries such as Ukraine, Mexico, Bangladesh and Philippines are expected to implement trans fat policies soon.

Francesco Branca, the WHO's nutrition and food safety director, called on those countries without policies in place to take "urgent action."

"There are some regions of the world which do not believe the problem is there," Branca explained, saying that it is "easy for them to take action to prevent these products being dumped onto them."

"There's simply no excuse for any country not taking action to protect their people from this artificial toxic chemical," added Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Only your heart will know the difference. You can eliminate artificial trans fat without changing the cost, taste or the availability of great food."

Vegetable oil is packaged in a vegetable oil factory
Trans fats — also called trans-unsaturated fatty acids — are a type of fat found in some foods such as oils. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are trans fats?

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, trans fats — also called trans-unsaturated fatty acids — are a type of fat found in some foods.

At the beginning of the 20th century, food products containing trans fats became popular as a cost-effective alternative to animal fats like butter.

Until the 1990s, trans fats were thought to be healthier and were often used in large-scale food production, a fact that has since been disproved.

There are two types of trans fats — artificial and natural.

Artificial trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to a liquid vegetable oil to make it more solid, which gives it a much longer shelf life. This form of trans fats have serious health consequences.

That said, a small amount of naturally occurring trans fats can be found in dairy products, beef and lamb, and aren't considered dangerous.

What foods contain trans fats?

Generally, artificial trans fats can be found in fried foods or commercially baked goods containing vegetable shortening such as donuts, pie crusts, cakes, cookies and fries.

The harmful substance can also be in margarine, spreads, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, non-dairy coffee creamer and other snack/convenience foods.

If you're unsure if one of your favourite foods or snacks contain trans fats, check the label — if contains "partially hydrogenated oils," that means it contains trans fats.

Selection of homemade rustic baked goods such as sweet pies and cupcakes shot in a home kitchen setting, Newport, Wales, 2010
Artificial trans fats can be found in fried foods or commercially baked goods containing vegetable shortening. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are the health risks of trans fats?

Overall, trans fats increase your risk of heart disease.

The substance raises your "bad" cholesterol (LDL), and lowers your "good" cholesterol (HDL). In turn, this promotes a buildup of fatty deposits that can clog your blood vessels and arteries and lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Trans fats are also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and increasing inflammation in the body.

What are Canada's guidelines on trans fats?

One of the main sources of industrially produced trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs).

Health Canada banned the use of PHOs and other trans fats in Sept. 2017 as part of Canada's Healthy Eating Strategy, which aims to improve the availability of information on healthy eating and support increased access to the availability of nutritious foods.

It also includes revisions to Canada’s Food Guide, stopping the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, and improving food labelling.

Since then, it has been illegal for manufacturers to add PHOs to foods sold in Canada. "This includes Canadian and imported foods, as well as those prepared in all food service establishments," the Government of Canada said.

Heart ,stethoscope on cardiogram report of cardiology patient. Cardiologist and medical concept
Trans fats increase your risk of heart disease. (Photo via Getty Images)

What does a healthy diet look like?

According to the Government of Canada, about one in 12 (or over two million) Canadian adults age 20 and over live with diagnosed heart disease every hour. Moreover, about 14 Canadian adults age 20 and over will die from diagnosed heart disease.

Consuming a healthy diet is one way to drastically reduce this risk. A balanced and nutritious diet incudes more vegetables and fruit, a variety of protein sources (lean meat, poultry and fish, as well as dairy products, beans and legumes) and plant-based products.

Moreover, it's recommended to limit processed foods, alcohol and sugary foods.

To learn more about reducing your risk of heart disease, speak to a healthcare professional.

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