UN health agency says trans fats in snack foods, baked foods and fried foods are responsible for 500,000 deaths each year

Trans fats used in snack foods, baked foods and fried foods are responsible for half a million deaths worldwide each year and must be eliminated from the global food supply, the World Health Organization says today.

Most of western Europe has already acted to reduce industrially made trans fats from factory-made foods. Denmark, like New York, which followed its lead, has an outright ban. Big food companies elsewhere have been under intense pressure to use substitutes.

In the UK, the latest national diet and nutrition survey shows average intake of trans fats is well below the recommended upper limit of 2% of food energy, at 0.5-0.7%. Although companies manufacturing processed food in the UK do not use trans fats any more, the fats are in some cheap foods imported from other countries.

The WHO is calling on all governments to take action, including passing laws or regulations to rid their food supply of industrial trans fats. Director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said eliminating trans fats would “represent a major victory in the global fight against cardiovascular disease”.

The WHO is targeting industrially made trans fats, but trans fats are also contained in milk, butter and cheese derived from ruminants, mainly cows and sheep.

Dr Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the WHO, said the amounts we eat in dairy products are unlikely to breach the health guidelines.

“We are saying that trans fats contained in those products have the same effect as industrial trans fats – we are not able to tell the difference,” he said. “But the amount contained in dairy products is much less.”

Quick guide

Processed foods

These are some of the UK’s best-selling ultra-processed foods

Mr Kipling Angel slices

Batchelors Super Noodles

McVitie’s digestive biscuits

Kelloggs Rice Krispies

Walkers cheese and onion crisps

Cadbury’s Crunchie

Haribo sweets

These are the ingredients in Mr Kipling Angel slices

Sugar Listed first, so it is the biggest ingredient. Each slice contains 13.2g of sugar, which is 15% of an adult’s recommended daily intake

Vegetable oils (rapeseed, palm) Rapeseed oil is healthy, but palm oil is a highly saturated fat, widely used in industrially-produced foods because of its very low cost

Wheat flour (with added calcium, iron, niacin, thiamin) Added vitamins but this is finely milled white flour


Glucose syrup Another form of sugar, made from maize in the USA, where it is called corn syrup, or from potatoes and wheat

Humectant (vegetable glycerine) Reduces moisture loss

Dextrose Another form of sugar

Dried egg white

Whey powder (milk) Gives texture

Vegetable fat (palm) Cheap form of saturated fat

Maize starch Often used as an anti-caking agent in sugars

Skimmed milk powder

Raising agents (disodium diphosphate, sodium bicarbonate)

Emulsifiers (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, sorbitan monostearate, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, soya lecithin, polysorbate 60) Emulsifiers are additives used to stabilise processed foods

Tapioca starch Thickening agent derived from cassava roots


Stabiliser (xanthan gum) Made from fermented sugars. Prevents ingredients from separating

Preservative (potassium sorbate)

Milk protein Can be used in industrially-made sponge cakes to replace egg, giving volume, elasticity and texture


Gelling agent (sodium alginate) This is E401, extracted from brown seaweed and used as a stabiliser in cream

Colours (titanium dioxide, cochineal, lutein) Titanium dioxide is an additive used in paint but also massively in food to give a white colour. Cochineal is the red colouring derived from insects. Lutein is yellow colouring extracted from marigolds

Acid (acetic acid) A leavening ingredient in baked goods when combined with baking soda

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The WHO is saying that trans fats should be limited to less than 1% of food energy, which it equates to a maximum of 2.2g of trans fats in a diet of 2,000 calories a day.

To get 2.2g of trans fatty acids, you would have to eat 150g of 30% saturated fat cheese or 50g of butter. “How many people eat 50g of butter?” asked Branca. “You can have your cheese, your butter or your litre of milk. That is fine.” Lower-fat milk is also better than high-fat.

Trans fats are more common in eastern Europe and particularly in countries like India, where they are in vanaspati, a type of vegetable ghee.

Recent guidance on saturated fats from the WHO said they should be limited to 10% of food energy per day. There are still issues over the fats used as substitutes for trans fatty acids in processed meals and cakes and pastries. The WHO says they should be polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable oils. But palm oil and coconut oil are cheap and much used and contain high proportions of saturated fat.

The International Food and Beverage Alliance, which represents food giants such as Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo, says it is complying with efforts to eliminate industrial trans fats. “Two years ago, IFBA member companies committed to reduce industrially produced trans fat in their products worldwide to nutritionally insignificant levels by the end of 2018,” said its secretary general, Rocco Renaldi. “Our progress has been significant – at the end of 2017, on an aggregated basis, we estimate that industrially produced trans fat had been removed from 98.8% of IFBA companies’ global product portfolios.”

He said the group “call on all food producers in all sectors to join the effort to achieve this public health priority”.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Voluntary removal of trans fats by manufacturers in the UK has paid dividends when it comes to our intakes. National dietary surveys show that intakes have reduced since 2007 and the amount we are consuming is well below the recommended maximums for the UK.

“If industrially produced trans fats are removed from foods this is positive, but if they are being replaced with saturated fats we would be concerned. We know that saturated fat consumption is in excess of UK guidelines and diets high in saturated fat are linked to raised cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases.”

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