LETTER: IT was in the early 1990s when it became clear that trans fat was the real culprit behind the rise in cardiovascular diseases around the world. Prior to that, saturated fats were always the bad boy.
When scientists found out that trans fat was more deleterious, the news shocked the world's oils and fats trade.
The United States' Food and Drug Administration took some time before it came out with the necessary labelling rulings to warn consumers. There was hesitation in some countries, which fear the repercussions on the local edible fats business.
The best practice on eliminating trans fat means either a mandatory national limit of 2g of industrially produced trans fat per 100g of total fat in all foods, or a national ban on the production or use of partially hydrogenated oils, which are a major source of trans fat.
This is where palm oil offers clear benefits. Palm oil can be used in all such applications without undergoing partial hydrogenation. That piece of evidence alone sent world palm oil demand up beyond expectations.
That also accounts for palm oil remaining as the leading edible oil in world trade. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said nine of the 16 countries with the highest estimated proportion of coronary heart disease deaths caused by trans fat intake were not implementing best-practice policies.
It was reported that 60 nations now have trans fat elimination policies, covering 3.4 billion people, or 43 per cent of the world's population. The majority are largely in Europe and the Americas.
Recently, WHO warned that five billion people are exposed to higher heart disease risks through trans fat. Back in 2018, WHO appealed for the unhealthy fats to be eliminated worldwide by 2023, amid evidence that it caused 500,000 premature deaths every year.
Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of deaths globally. An estimated 17.9 million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2019, of which 85 per cent were due to heart attacks and strokes. Eliminating trans fat is seen as an easy way to reduce the numbers.
"There's simply no excuse for any country not taking action to protect their people from this artificial toxic chemical," said Resolve to Save Lives president Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Only your heart will know the difference. You can eliminate artificial trans fat without changing the cost, taste or the availability of great food."
Taking into account present developments, global elimination of trans fat is within reach, pointing to big countries like Nigeria and Mexico moving towards eliminating the use of trans fat. Experts are optimistic that the world can make trans fat history.
And palm oil can play that saviour role. Who would have guessed that palm oil, which was heavily demonised before, is now a darling among consumers who want to avoid taking trans fat.
Nature does work in mysterious ways, turning the table around in palm oil's favour.
Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim
Tan Sri Omar Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Studies, UCSI University
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times