Trans Fat: What you need to know about toxic compound found in foods

Trans Fat: What you need to know about toxic compound found in foods Trans Fat: What you need to know about toxic compound found in foods

In this investigative report Temitope Bademosi writes about Trans Fat, a toxic compound found in foods and any fast foods and its impact on human health system.

Ade, a promising young bachelor in his 30s eats bread and butter for breakfast. At other times, it is fried yam and some fried plantain and eggs. At lunch break at work, Ade orders some tasty pastries and a sweet cake. He takes the lift not the stairs. At night and for supper, Ade relaxes with friends at a restaurant to take some fried chips and chicken. At other times, he microwaves frozen pizza in his fridge for dinner. This is Ade’s regular dietary pattern.

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But one fateful day, just before he could order his tasty pastries, Ade’s heart suddenly stopped.

He died. He died of a heart attack. He was in good health just minutes before.

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Sadly, this is the reality for many who are unaware of the silent killer- trans fat,-  a major contributor to cardiovascular diseases and other chronic health conditions.

According to the World Health Organisation, cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, accounting for 17.5 million deaths annually with high blood pressure being the number one risk factor.

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Four out of five deaths from cardiovascular diseases are due to heart attacks and strokes.

The statistics are grim.

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By 2030, almost 23.6 million people will die from cardiovascular diseases, mainly from heart disease and stroke if urgent actions are not taken.

An estimated 150,000 people die in Nigeria every year from cardiovascular diseases.

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In 2019, around 137,000 deaths in the country were linked to cardiovascular diseases with 3,229 deaths associated with trans fat related cardiovascular mortality. That’s according to the  2022 Global Health Data exchange.

It is a brand-new morning.

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People are on the move and perhaps, to cope with the hustle and bustle, getting a quick bite on the go is appealing to many.

Most times, most of the foods they eat are biscuits, bread, bean-cakes and other snacks among other fast foods and the World Health Organisation has said that these foods are laden with trans fats or other contents that could be injurious to health.

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 What is Transfat?

Trans Fat is a toxic compound found in foods and any fast foods. Its natural form can be found in small and safe quantities in meat and dairy products.  Its artificial form is formed through an industrial process called hydrogenation. Unfortunately, they have found their way into what we consume in our communities.

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It is not uncommon to see people selling fried yam, potatoes, fish and Akara in communities around Nigeria. In some cases, you can be sure to find some snacks which kids will consume at break time.

The World Health Organisation in 2018 explained that deep-fried, processed foods contribute to trans-fat intake., causing more than 500,000 premature deaths from cardiovascular diseases every year, across the world. These trans-fatty acids increase the bad cholesterol in humans as well as clog the arteries. Baked foods like cakes, cookies, pies, biscuits, rolls and some vegetable oils have high trans fat levels.

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Food is a major component in life and Nigeria is blessed with many delicious delicacies spread across tribes. But the consumption of processed, baked, packaged and fast foods has left many Nigerians at the risk of major diseases that could be linked to trans-fat like diabetes, cancers, dementia, obesity, heart disease and even death.

Reusing Oil and the dangers of trans fat

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Oil is a major component of many foods that Nigerians consume. As a result, it is highly sought after for frying and other cooking activities. Many of the vegetable oils used for cooking in Nigerian homes have been said to contain a high level of trans fat.

It is not uncommon to find yellow kegs around open markets containing oils for sale. Sometimes, they are in white, transparent kegs. For many who cannot afford to buy these oils in large quantities, they buy those filled into used, empty pet bottles in markets and shops. Sometimes they are also sold inside polythene bags. Many of these oils are quite unhealthy, yet, they find their way into many of the things that we consume and they mostly come cheap to some extent.

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For Nigeria’s teeming population, awareness about the dangers of transfats is very low.  Kafilat Okusanya sells fried fish in a  kiosk in Ijeododo, a Lagos suburb. A typical day starts with preparing the fish, coating it with flour and then frying which is largely dependent on an important ingredient – vegetable oil. Once the pan is put on fire, she waits for it to dry. She uses about five litres of oil a day for frying; but there’s more.

She tops it up with some oil she used a day before  which was also topped with oil that had been previously used. This is her daily routine and she has been doing this for 10 years.

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She has never heard of transfats and believes that she is using the best cooking oil because it does not cake up or “sleep” in local  parlance  and because it does not dry.

For more than two decades, Mrs Olaniyan has been frying fish.

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In the past,she tells me that it used to be very profitable but inflation and rising food prices have cut profit to the barest minimum.

To maximize profit, vegetable oil has to be reused over and over again but in doing this, the risk of her customers consuming transfat is high because the hotter the oil, the more chances that they will consume trans fats.

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Just like the fried fish sellers, oil is also recycled in food joints.  There seems to be a consensus that a particular brand of oil is better than another just by mere face value. There is no testing and no check on the nutritional content is available, to measure cholesterol or even the transfat level.

In the open markets today, it is a choice between unbranded vegetable oils.

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There have been calls for sustainable alternatives like palm oil which experts say is safe to consume in moderation.

But some age-long cooking practices like bleaching palm-oil are hazardous to the health. The bleaching process gets the trans fats conversions in motion.

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In 2018, the World Health Organisation called for the elimination of industrially-produced trans fats by 2023 through a framework called REPLACE, a six-step guide for countries to set limits on industrially-produced transfat or ban partially-hydrogenated oils, which are a major source of trans fat in food.

The UN health agency recommends that not more than 2 grams of industrially produced trans fat are allowed in every 100 grams of fats and oils.

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At the last count, forty countries now have best-practice trans-fat elimination policies in effect, protecting 1.4 billion people around the world from this deadly food compound.

Denmark, for example, was the first country to remove artificial trans-fat in 2003 and reduced deaths from cardiovascular diseases in its population.

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South Africa is also the first African country to achieve this feat, limiting transfats in foods since 2011.

But what about Nigeria?

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Civil society organisations like Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) and other coalition partners are at the forefront of the campaign against transfat and its elimination from Nigeria’s food chain.

The Trans-Fat Free Nigeria Campaign is a moving train, educating the masses on what trans-fat is and how to avoid it in the food we eat.

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The Nigerian government is set to follow in the footsteps of some countries that have passed trans-fat free legislations by drafting regulations that will limit transfat levels in food.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC)’s draft regulation, the Fats and Oil Regulations 2022 is in the works and has now been passed to the Federal Ministry of Health for review.

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But it remains to be seen if this proposed regulation will address access to unbranded cooking oils which is readily at the reach of the average Nigerian in the open markets.

In all of these, the big question is: Can Nigeria meet up with the WHO timeline for the global elimination of industrially-produced trans-fatty acids by 2023?

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According to the World Health Organisation, replacing trans fat with healthier oils/fats in the food supply is a low-cost way for governments to save the lives of their citizens.

For people to make better and healthier choices regarding the oils they use for cooking and what they eat, regulations must be in place as well as proper monitoring by relevant agencies.

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And so, we go back to the beginning of this story where Ade recently died from a heart attack.

His family claims it is the work of witches and wizards; they don’t want an autopsy.

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But as they prepare for his funeral, more yellow kegs of unhealthy oil are being bought for an outlandish party. More oil.  Will the cycle continue?

 This Investigative Report was supported by Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) and partner, Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) under her #TransfatFreeNigeria Project.

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