The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a five-year plan to help countries phase out industrially-produced trans fats from the global food supply, in an attempt to improve public health, and like, save our lives. Their mission is honorable, indeed: They estimate that trans fats are responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 people as a result of heart disease every year.
But let’s back up for a moment to assess this evildoer lurking in our food: Industrially-produced trans fats are produced when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making them more solid (like in the creation of margarine or shortening), thus increasing the food’s shelf life. Unfortunately, these artificial trans fats raise cholesterol, harden arteries and inhibit the formation of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which helps determine the dilation of your arteries and regulates blood flow.
All in all, the WHO estimates that a diet high in trans fats increases your risk of heart disease by 21 percent and premature death by 28 percent. The really bad news is, avoiding industrially-produced trans fats can be laborious and costly: Trans fats are frequently used in fried foods, and can often be found in baked and processed snack foods. (Dairy and meat products contain naturally-occurring trans fats, but those are less of an issue.)
In short, the average American diet is riddled with the stuff.
If, however, the plan released by the WHO—which essentially calls for the large-scale replacement of trans fats with healthier fats and oils (e.g., canola oil)—is successful, we’ll almost certainly be a much healthier people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reducing our trans fat consumption could prevent between 10,000 and 20,000 heart attacks each year, and between 3,000 and 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths annually.
Expecting to eliminate trans fats altogether within as few as five years is ambitious, but several high-income countries (including Denmark) have already more or less accomplished this feat. In 2006, New York City banned restaurants from serving food with trans fats, and studies suggest the move has already reduced rates of cardiovascular disease. Now, the challenge is getting middle- and lower-income countries (and the rest of the U.S.) to follow suit, which is especially difficult considering they’re generally infested with cheap, unhealthy eats and lacking proper food-safety regulations.
Finally, of course, there’s our original question: How does this directly affect us, the people who stuff their faces with junk food on an embarrassingly regular basis? Will our beloved doughnuts, cookies and fried chicken disappear altogether? Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, is doubtful. “I’m not sure if some foods will disappear so much as they’ll be reformulated,” Hunnes theorizes. “A lot of companies these days are reformulating foods to meet the growing demand for ‘improved’ nutrition in packaged and processed foods. These changes could lead to taste changes in some foods; however, food scientists are always working hard to mitigate those flavor changes while maintaining the desired texture.”
Still, while we probably won’t taste the difference, our wallets might feel a bit lighter. “If these fats are removed or replaced with an alternative (hopefully a healthier one), it may lead to companies increasing the prices of those items, ” Hunnes says. Manufactures claim that partially hydrogenated oils—which are essentially carriers for trans fats—are cheaper than healthier alternatives, although the WHO contests this claim.
It’s also possible that newly-formulated substitutes for trans fats will be even worse for our health. “My biggest fear is that some reformulations or new chemical additives will be even more harmful to us than trans fats are,” Hunnes says.
Essentially: Your beloved crappy food will taste almost exactly the same, but maybe cost a little more. Oh yeah, and you might live a whole bunch of extra years. Whether that’s a win or a loss, we’ll leave to you and your finely curated folder of depression memes.