How many lives can one new law save? If England banned trans fats in foods, it could save 7,200 lives over the next five years, according to a new analysis from researchers from several universities in the United Kingdom.
In addition, because folks in lower socioeconomic classes tend to eat more trans fats—on average, they eat more fast food and packaged snacks—a ban would reduce one inequity in health between the rich and the poor. In a paper published in the journal BMJ, the U.K. research team estimated that a trans-fat ban would reduce the gap in coronary heart disease deaths between poorer and richer Brits by 15 percent.
After the FDA required American nutrition labels to say how much trans fats are in foods, the trans fat content of American processed foods fell by almost half.
These numbers provide a hint of what many industrialized nations with trans-fat bans in the works can look forward to. Case in point: This summer, the Food and Drug Administration passed a ban that American food manufacturers and restaurants must comply with by 2018. The FDA estimated that the ban will prevent 7,000 Americans from dying every year. It's likely that, just like in England, the new United States law will also reduce socioeconomic inequities in heart disease deaths.
The evidence that trans fats are an important risk factor for heart disease has been mounting over the past couple of decades. One review, published in 2006, found that, for every two percent of a person's total calories she eats in trans fats, her risk for coronary heart disease is raised by 23 percent. Eating trans fats lowers the so-called "good" HDL cholesterol, raises "bad" LDL cholesterol, and provokes an inflammatory response in the body.
The fats appear primarily in hydrogenated vegetable oils, which restaurants and food companies use for deep-frying and for making crackers, cookies, and other packaged snacks. Bans mean companies have to re-formulate their products. Nudges that stop short of total bans also work to encourage companies to re-formulate—after the FDA required American nutrition labels to say how much trans fats are in foods, the trans fat content of American processed foods fell by almost half. Still, the World Health Organization recommends full bans because trans fats can have effects even if people eat relatively small amounts of them.
At worst, a ban might cost the British food industry about $360 million, the pro-ban researchers calculate. Still, it would save about $460 million in averted health-care costs and productivity loss, they find.
Those are all savings that Americans can look forward to in 2018. We hope our British friends will join us soon.
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