Artificial trans-fat, often found in snack foods, baked goods and some cooking oils, clogs arteries and leads to heart attacks and death. Every year, an estimated 10,000 people in Africa die prematurely from coronary heart disease caused by artificial trans-fat consumption. The number of deaths will rise in the coming years without urgent action, but governments can act now to prevent these deaths. Artificial trans-fats can be replaced with healthier alternatives without changing the taste of food or costs to consumers.
Artificial trans-fat is created in an industrial process, adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. The primary dietary source for trans-fats in processed food is called “partially hydrogenated oil.’’ Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are the most common source of trans fat. Because PHOs are low-priced and extend the shelf life of products, they’ve become popular among food manufacturers and are often used as a substitute for butter in spreads, fried foods, and baked goods. However, PHOs raise levels of unhealthy low-density lipoproteins (LDL) (bad cholesterol) while lowering healthy high-density lipoproteins (HDL) (good cholesterol), leading to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack and death. They are the most unhealthy of all oils.
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for the global elimination of trans-fat, and many countries took action. Today, best-practice policies are in place in 56 countries, covering 3.7 billion people–nearly half of the world’s population. This is a vast improvement from just five years ago when only 7% of people worldwide were protected from this toxic additive. The trans-fat elimination policies already in effect will save millions of lives.
In addition to saving lives, eliminating trans-fat would strengthen economies. A 2023 cost-effectiveness analysis in Kenya found that, over the population’s lifetime, eliminating artificial trans-fat would avert around 110,000 heart attacks and 49,000 heart disease deaths and save 290 million USD (30 billion Kshs) in health care costs. The study found an impressive return on government spending on trans-fat elimination: 20 USD saved per 1 USD invested. Additional studies in the United States, United Kingdom, Argentina, and the European Union have also shown that trans-fat regulations save lives and are cost-saving to governments.
In Africa, only South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria have best-practice policies in place. Without national regulations for trans-fat elimination, African nations risk becoming dumping grounds for products containing trans-fat that can no longer be sold in the rapidly growing number of countries and regions with more protections in place.
To protect their people and save money, other governments in Africa can move swiftly to join South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria in protecting their people from this unnecessary, toxic food additive. The path to trans-fat elimination is clear. WHO recommends two best-practice policy models:
- Mandatory national restrictions that limit industrially produced trans fatty acids (TFA) to 2% of total fat content in all foods.
- Mandatory nationwide ban on the import, production and use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) in all foods.
WHO’s REPLACE action package provides a step-by-step, strategic approach to eliminating artificial trans-fat from national food supplies. Africa CDC and Resolve to Save Lives are committed to supporting countries to eliminate trans-fat consumption in Africa by offering technical support to countries interested in taking action. Commercial determinants of health, such as trans fats in foods, are a focus of Africa CDC’s 2022-2026 strategy for non-communicable diseases. The collaboration will leverage Africa CDC’s convening power and Resolve to Save Live’s experience, supporting countries and the world to eliminate trans-fat.
Implementing best-practice trans-fat elimination policies will allow African countries to save lives and money, creating more resilient populations and economies. Together, we can save lives, strengthen the economy and make Africa trans-fat-free. The time to act is now.
Article by Dr. Jean Kaseya and Dr. Tom Frieden. H.E Dr. Jean Kaseya is the Director-General of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa-CDC). Dr. Kaseya oversees the organisation’s fundamental political, strategic, and technical functions. At the forefront of his agenda is his commitment to advancing a transformative “New Deal” for Africa CDC, with the primary objective of strengthening health security across the continent. Follow Him on X and LinkedIn.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. CDC from 2009-2017, oversaw responses to the H1N1 influenza, Ebola and Zika epidemics, is President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, and Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on LinkedIn and X: @DrTomFrieden.