By Ebele Orakpo
Many diseases hitherto unknown to our ancestors are becoming commonplace in Africa today as a result of change in lifestyle. Incidence of cancer, diabetes, hypertension etc., are on the rise. Westernisation has affected every area of the African life; from fashion to diet. Scientists are of the opinion that going back to our natural foods will help immensely.
In this chat with Vanguard Learning in his laboratory in Awka, Dr. Ezenwa Chukeze, a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Applied Biochemistry, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, spoke on why “we retrace our steps because we can never be wiser than nature.” Excerpts:
For Dr. Ezenwa Chukeze, owner of Chukeze Research and Development Laboratories, his research works are not only focused on researches that are very relevant to Nigeria’s problems but also on those that will be of general interest to the international community.
According to him, “In researches focused on solving local problems, we don’t only try to solve problems of the environment; we want to patent ideas that we can sell. That was the main reason why I invested in this laboratory.” The researcher has been able to produce industrial alcohol from cassava, gin from decaying mangoes, glucose syrup, glucose powder and glue from cassava starch.
Dr. Chukeze said that in the 60s, “the eastern part of Nigeria was the world’s largest producer of palm oil, the north was the largest producer of groundnut and the west was the largest producer of cocoa but we have lost all that because of petroleum. Sometimes it looks like petroleum is a curse.
The Malaysians collected the seeds in the 60s and now they are leading in palm oil production in the world because they were serious about it. We were given the impression that palm oil is very rich in saturated fatty acids and because of that, it is not good for human consumption but should be used for making soap and all that, and that the best oil should be those oils that are rich in unsaturated fatty acids.
That stuff is no longer tenable based on research. I think the major culprit in cardiovascular disease, hypertension and others, is trans-fat. When we are processing fat, the saturated fatty acids are converted from cis- to trans. If you have a double bond and the two hydrogen bonds are in one direction, you call it cis- and if they are in opposite directions, you call it trans.
The cis is natural while the trans is generated during processing like heating the oil, production of margarine, baking, deep frying, bleaching palm oil etc. Today, there are international standards for the production of margarine, cooking oil etc., to ensure that trans-fat is eliminated. Unfortunately, I think our industries are still using the old method.”
He warned against consumption of oil-rich foods such as margarine, confectioneries and fast foods made with partially hydrogenated oil which contains trans-fat as consumption of trans-fat is associated with high cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, and cancers among other diseases.
He argued that “the so-called vegetable oil is usually palm oil which has been processed, bleached, oxidised, deodorised, de-gummed, fractionated and heated several times. It is further adulterated with palm kernel oil which is not good for human consumption. Chemical additives are also added to keep the oil fluid at room temperature. All the potent nutrients at this time are removed or destroyed with several contaminants left in the oil.”
Kits for identification of adulterated palm oil:
“In recent times, red palm oil is adulterated with red substance to enhance the red colour of poorly extracted and poorly stored oil. This practice evolved out of greed and ignorance on how to store and process palm fruit for good quality oil.
We have developed a simple analytical kit for on-the-spot identification of adulterated red oil. This kit can be used by anybody. One kit will identify oil pitched with red colour additive and the others will identify poorly processed or stored palm oil.”
The researcher warned against bleaching of palm oil as that not only destroys the vital nutrients but also produces dangerous trans-fat.
“We do not need to bleach palm oil because that red colour we are removing is the oil’s power house, highly fortified with vitamins. We have very high levels of vitamins E, A, K and Q and these are very potent biological substances in the oil that will promote health. Studies have shown that natural palm oil will guard against development of cancer, hypertension, diabetes etc.
Palm oil is a kind of miracle oil. We were deceived that it was not good so we started bleaching it. The fact is that palm oil, even traditionally, is the first line of drugs for a sick person. If somebody is sick in a traditional setting, usually, a lot of the medicines have palm oil in them. We seem to have forgotten all that. I, personally, have come back to that.
For instance, when I am weak, I take one spoon of palm oil in the morning and one in the evening. Some companies now put red palm oil in capsules as supplement for pregnant women and nursing mothers because just a spoon will cover your daily requirement for vitamins E and A. I can actually see why in the village, when a goat eats poisonous cassava leaves and it is about to die, they give it palm oil and it survives.
“The claim that red palm oil lowers blood sugar may be in line with its potent antioxidant activity. Diabetes is the consequence of oxidative stress damage and red palm oil is loaded with a natural mix of carotenoids and antioxidants. It is the most fortified of all known natural dietary oils. This explains its importance as our traditional antidote in poisoning and folk medicine.
“There are lots of things we still don’t know. For example, palm oil contains Vitamin E in a class of compounds called tocopherols. We have alpha, beta, gamma and delta, so there are different types of tocopherols. If you look at the drug in the market, it is just one type of vitamin E, so why does nature have several types? Those other types must have important roles to play and that is why palm oil is very powerful. We also have trienols, another type of Vitamin E.
“There are about eight types in palm oil, a powerful mix, and I think that is why it is very potent as a supplement and why it is used in folk medicine to treat all kinds of things. Some people rub it on wounds. There is need to create awareness that we have to stop eating bleached palm oil which contains trans- fat. We can use groundnut or soybean oil. They are better than bleached palm oil.”
Also, he noted that the antioxidant property of the palm oil enables it to inhibit tumour growth and initiate apoptosis which is the ability of cells that have acquired corrupt programmes to commit suicide rather than develop into cancer cells. “Those who fry akara (bean cake) and use one pot of oil to fry day after day, everyday, they pour new oil into the old one and continue using it. That has a lot of trans-fat.”
“Alcohol is the second most important industrial solvent after water. You drink it, you use it to dissolve drugs, to sterilize in hospitals, in perfumes, in chemical industries, in a lot of things. Today, we use alcohol to drive cars as we seek renewable energy. I produce alcohol from cassava. We grind the cassava, add enzymes to convert the starch to sugar. We then add yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol. We also use decaying mango fruits to produce alcohol which I call Mangin,” he said.
“We also produce glucose syrup and powder from cassava. Glucose syrup is used in sweetening confectioneries and drinks. We have glucose powder that people add to their food or beverage. Glucose syrup is healthier than ordinary sugar because sugar is fructose plus glucose and what makes the body react to hunger is glucose, fructose does not.
So when you eat sugared food, the tendency is that you eat a lot more because the sugar you are eating is half fructose and half glucose. That is why a lot of people are fat; they consume a lot of sugar. But if you are consuming glucose, you have higher glucose level and you feel more satisfied and that makes you eat less.”