The World Health Organization on Monday announced a sweeping plan that urges governments around the globe to eliminate the use of trans fats, the industrially produced edible oil that gave birth to margarine, Crisco and other artery-clogging products that have been linked to millions of premature deaths.
Artificial trans fats, better known to many American consumers as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, have contributed to a half million deaths a year, many of those in developing countries ill-equipped to address the health threats posed by a product cherished for its low price and long shelf life.
The campaign, more a set of guidelines than an edict, seeks to eradicate trans fats from global food supplies by 2023, potentially saving some 10 million lives, according to the W.H.O.
The campaign was developed in partnership with Vital Strategies, a global health group backed by Michael Bloomberg, who introduced the nation’s first municipal ban on trans fats in 2006, when he was mayor of New York City.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the former New York City health commissioner who was a driving force behind the ban, said the W.H.O.’s effort was a low-cost way for developing countries to reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease, which claims 17 million lives a year.
“If the world replaces trans fats, people won’t taste the difference, food won’t cost more, but your heart will know the difference,” said Dr. Friedan, who is president of Resolve to Save Lives, a Vital Strategies initiative focused on eliminating trans fats from the world’s food supplies.
A number of countries have already moved to restrict or ban trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, including Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Britain and the United States. Next month, all products sold in the United States must be free of industrially produced trans fats. Thailand is expected to issue a ban in the coming weeks.
But trans fats remain popular in many emerging economies, particularly in South Asia, where local producers dominate the edible oil industry and regulations are weak or nonexistent.
“The reality is that global food companies have done an amazing job reducing trans fats in rich countries but they have largely ignored Asia and Africa,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In India, trans fats often take the form of vanaspati, an inexpensive cooking oil that is sometimes used repeatedly by restaurants and street vendors. Researchers say the process of reheating vanaspati, which is made from palm oil, renders it even more lethal, and likely contributes to soaring rates of heart disease among South Asians.
A study published in the journal Nutrition found that Pakistani men had a 62 percent higher mortality rate from heart attacks than men in England and Wales.
Until now, efforts by the Indian government to reduce the use of vanaspati have been stymied by food producers.
Dr. Francesco Branca, chief nutritionist for the W.H.O., said the initiative seeks to overcome such resistance through public education and by encouraging governments to enact regulations that eliminate trans fats produced by local food manufacturers.
But the health agency has also enlisted multinational companies that have already made the shift from trans fats to share their technological know-how with local producers. “It’s easy to switch to more healthy oils, and consumers will not be able to taste the difference,” Dr. Branca said. “This is really the low-hanging fruit for preventing cardiovascular disease, and it doesn’t cost much money for governments to make it happen.”
Among those that have joined the effort are Mondelez International, the American food giant that produces Oreos, Cadbury chocolates and scores of snack foods that previously contained trans fats. “We support the organization’s work and broader industry efforts to share best practices and help guide other companies toward the achievement of W.H.O.’s global objective,” a company spokesman said in an email.
Even before the Food and Drug Administration announced its ban three years ago, most American companies had already started to reduce or eliminate their use of trans fats in cookies, cakes and frozen foods. The shift began in 2006, after the F.D.A. issued new rules requiring manufacturers to declare trans fat contents on package labels. Many companies, worried about dampened sales, began embracing healthier fats and oils. By 2012, even Crisco was free of trans fats.
Popularized in the 1950s, and once lionized as a healthy alternative to the saturated fats found in butter and lard, trans fats have been implicated in sudden heart attacks and strokes, but they are also associated with an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes and even infertility in women.
Invented at the turn of the last century, trans fatty acids are created by changing the molecular structure of vegetable oils. The process hardens the oil, extending its shelf life and giving products like icing and cupcakes a creamy texture, but the product also wreaks havoc on the human circulation system. Their damaging effects include a rise in levels of so-called bad cholesterol and a decline in levels of good cholesterol.
One study published last year by The Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who lived in parts of New York State where trans fats had been banned for three or more years had significantly lower rates of heart attacks and strokes. In Denmark, the first country to ban trans fats from food products, the results have also been dramatic. According to a study in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the shift saved an average of 14.2 lives per 100,000 people each year.
Dr. Walter C. Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he thought the W.H.O. initiative would likely lead to the extinction of trans fats in the near future.
“Even if the W.H.O. isn’t able to do enforcement, its efforts are taken seriously by governments across the world,” he said.
Back in the 1970s, Dr. Willett was one of the first researchers to sound the alarm about trans fats, a stance that earned him scorn from the food industry and even fellow nutritionists.
Although some American manufacturers resisted efforts to ban trans fats a decade ago, the naysayers have been all but vanquished in the face of sobering research that began to accumulate in the 1990s.
Dr. Willett said he had planned the celebrate the official start of the F.D.A. ban next month by building a tower made up of trans fat and then knocking it over. There’s only one problem: “We’ve been trying to buy some trans fats,” he said, “but we can’t find it anywhere. “