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Watch out, trans fats: The whole world is waking up to your dangers

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a plan to eliminate artificial trans fats by 2023, and it is calling on governments across the globe to take action. According to WHO’s estimates, trans fats lead to more than 500,000 preventable deaths each year from cardiovascular disease.

Although wealthier countries have already taken steps to virtually eliminate trans fats, the WHO says that action is needed in low- and middle-income countries.

“Banning trans fats in New York City helped reduce the number of heart attacks without changing the taste or cost of food, and eliminating their use around the world can save millions of lives,” said former New York mayor and WHO Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases Michael Bloomberg in a release.

Back in 2006, the New York City Board of Health voted to ban the use of artificial trans fats in all eateries — from fast-food spots to fine-dining establishments. Despite pushback from the restaurant industry, the ban went into effect in July 2008, which meant restaurants had to eliminate “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, shortenings or margarines with 0.5 grams or more trans fat” from their establishments. Those that didn’t comply could be fined up to $2,000, with that amount increasing for repeated violations.

While the WHO doesn’t have the power to enact that kind of legislation, the organization is hoping to encourage and guide the lawmakers who do. “This initiative is meant to lead countries in establishing legislation to eliminate the trans fats,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the WHO, according to CNN.

So what exactly are trans fats, and why are they public enemy number one? Although trans fats occur naturally in dairy products and the guts of cows and sheep, the kind everyone’s concerned about is the artificial, industrially produced version.

“In the lab, hydrogen is added to unsaturated vegetable oils, making them saturated and solid at room temperature,” explains registered dietitian Maya Feller, M.S., RD, of Maya Feller Nutrition, to LIVESTRONG.COM. You might know these trans fats by their other name: partially hydrogenated oil.

The most common sources of artificial trans fats come from fast food and overly processed foods. Think of french fries and bags of chips along with packaged baked goods, including cookies, pastries and crackers. In these products, Feller says that the trans fats are added “to maintain texture and shelf life.”

Trans fats deliver a double blow to your health, both increasing the bad LDL cholesterol and lowering the good HDL cholesterol. “If we are able to decrease the population-wide intake of trans fats, we can expect to see a decrease in heart disease and stroke,” says Feller, who adds that we may also see a decrease in other diet-related inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes, some cancers and some degenerative cognitive diseases.

Since 2006, food companies in the U.S. have been required to include the amount of trans fat in products on nutrition labels. And back in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration gave food companies three years to phase out trans fats entirely. Because of consumer demand, many brands — including Nestle, Kellogs and General Mills — have already “practically eliminated trans fats” in their foods, reports Fortune.

But the official deadline is looming: Come June of this year, the FDA’s ban will go into effect, which means the U.S. will join other countries that previously banned trans fat, including Denmark, Austria, Iceland and Switzerland, as Vox reported.

Of course, much of the rest of the world still has some catching up to do, which is why the WHO’s initiative is so important and could save thousands of lives.