Trans-fat reduction: Asian nations ‘gaining momentum’ with reformulation policies - WHO

By Si Ying Thian

- Last updated on GMT

WHO report shows that Asian nations are making progress in trans-fat reduction polices © Getty Images
WHO report shows that Asian nations are making progress in trans-fat reduction polices © Getty Images

Related tags Trans fat WHO Food policy Asia Hydrogenation

Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Indonesia are making headways towards trans-fatty acids (TFA) elimination, but national policy is still lagging behind for South Korea, Brunei, and Fiji.

The findings were based upon the fourth annual report by the World Health Organization (WHO), which monitors the global progress in 2022 towards WHO’s global TFA elimination goal by 2023.

Introduction of best-practice policies across the South-East Asia Region would potentially result in an estimated 178 600 lives saved per year,” ​states the organisation.

If the remaining countries in the Western Pacific Region adopted best-practice policies, it is estimated that more than 132 000 lives per year would be saved in the region.”

The 2022 report was prepared by WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety and Resolve to Save Lives (RTSL),​ a global public health non-profit organization. Specific country data were provided by the WHO regional and country offices.

Asia’s report card

The research found that global TFA elimination efforts were concentrated mostly in higher-income countries and the Americas and Europe regions.

Globally, India and Philippines became the first two lower-middle income countries to pass a best-practice policy in 2021.

Best-practice policy entails a national limit of 2g of industrially produced TFA per 100g of total fat in all foods, and a national ban on the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) as an ingredient in all foods.

India’s policy was effective since January 2022, which will offer protection to approximately 1.4 billion people (41% of the population in lower-middle income countries). Philippines’ policy will take effect from July 2023 onwards.

Within Asia-Pacific (APAC), this trend was followed by Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s policy has taken effect since December 2022.

Among its developed counterparts in APAC, Thailand became the first country to adopt the best-practice TFA elimination policy, and third in the world to implement a PHO ban since 2019. This was followed by Singapore and Hong Kong in 2020.

Palm oil alternative: Balancing nation’s health and its major export

One of the observable trends among some countries in South-East Asia is the gradual transition in their efforts towards a best-practice TFA elimination policy.

As some of the biggest producers of tropical oils such as palm oil and coconut – which are high in saturated fats, eliminating it in one go can be contentious. Hence, WHO encourages countries to develop a replacement roadmap detailing discussion and plans to seek out healthy replacements and alternative techniques in the country.

Indonesia, for example, was documented to have a high consumption of fatty foods which puts the population at risk of TFA overconsumption.

However, there has been a growing interest in eliminating TFA, and the Indonesian government and civil society organizations have been working with WHO on strengthening their capacity to implement changes.

Another case study is India, where its statutory board Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has rendered technical assistance to SMEs by developing their skills to produce healthier and cost-effective alternatives to TFA-containing PHO.

FSSAI also adopted a multi-stakeholder approach to tap on the expertise and get the buy-in of industry associations and government bodies, to encourage SMEs to adopt technologies to reduce TFA in their manufacturing processes.

For South Korea, Brunei, and Fiji, they presently do not have a national policy stipulating a ban or restriction on TFA.

South Korea and Brunei do both encourage reformulation to reduce or eliminate TFA, while Brunei and Fiji ensure that that the presence of TFA in products are labelled on its packaging. 

Moving forward, the report highlighted that WHO would focus on capacity-building efforts, and the efforts would target resource-poor countries with an interest to reduce TFA:

Over the coming years, the focus of WHO and its partners’ efforts will be on those countries that are poised to pass best-practice policies. WHO will also concentrate attention on countries that have some interest in introducing a TFA regulation but have not yet taken action, or lack the capacity, to do so.​”

Source: Countdown to 2023: WHO report on global trans-fat elimination 2022

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