By Gabriel Ewepu
Dr Jerome Mafeni, is the Project Adviser for Trans-Fatty Acids, TFA, Elimination, Network for Health Equity and Development, NHED, in this interview explained why government should intensify public enlightenment on dangers in consuming Trans-Fatty Acids, TFA, and other issues.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, recently launched the 2020 TFA report. While Nigeria has made some progress coming up with draft regulations for food packaging and labeling and another one on fats and oils including trans fats. Would you say that it has sufficiently taken the lead in ensuring?
Nigeria has certainly taken lead in demonstrating commitment towards the elimination of Trans Fatty Acids from the food supply of Nigeria. Part of this leadership is demonstrated through the articulation of new regulations for the labeling and processing of fats and oils in the country that sets limits on the amount of TFAs that are permissible in food products in the country.
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What kind of impact do you see the passing of these regulations into law having on health financing in the country especially with many still making out-of-pocket payments COVID-19 devastating our health system?
Finalisation and gazetting of these new regulations will set new enforceable standards for industry, importers, and vendors of food products in the country that will ensure that consumers of food products in the country are protected from the deleterious effects of TFAs in the foods people eat. Limitation of TFA consumption will in turn lead to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and other non-communicable diseases that have the potential to cause untold suffering and unnecessary expenditure both by individuals (out-of-pocket expenses) and government in providing treatment and services to manage these largely avoidable maladies.
Do you imagine that this is something that could have ripple effect on the region beyond Nigeria?
Certainly. Economically, countries in the sub-region have significant ties for cross-border trading in various products that includes oils and fats. Even with border closures and import restrictions, a lot of illegal and undocumented trade persists. Nigeria changing her rules, habits and practices related to the use and consumption of foods with limited or no TFAs will affect the practices by other countries in the region who depend on the country for their economic sustenance. Further, changes in the outputs from oils and fat food production industries in Nigeria will have complementary effects on other countries in the region who import these products from the country. Consequently, there will be corollary health effects emanating from these economic activities on countries in the region.
Recently, there was the global commemoration of the World Heart Day. With trans fats identified as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, what role does Nigeria’s Ministry of Health need to play to ensure citizens are properly informed about the risks of PHOs and for industry players to adopt the best practices in food processing?
Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health administrative and political leadership backed by the National Council on Health and National and States political leadership need to be more visible and vocal in articulating the dangers of TFA consumption at various public forums and via various media channels so that the general public becomes more aware about the dangers related to what they consume and how to protect themselves from avoidable morbidity and mortality. They should also expedite processes related to finalizing current regulations that have been drafted through NAFDAC for eventual gazetting into law. Further, they should support the agency with adequate resources to enable them enforce compliance when they regulations eventually come into force.
Is it possible that individuals may also be partially hydrogenating their oils at home without realising this?
Indeed. Regular deep frying and reuse of fats and oils has a potential to create TFA formation. Foods consumed from such habits have the potential to put individuals at risk.
Cardiovascular disease is currently the leading cause of death in the Americas with links to trans fat. Do you see such a risk looming in Nigeria?
This risk already exists in Nigeria. With increasing urbanization and new habits being developed in cities around fast foods consumption, the prevalence of obesity which is closely linked to cardiovascular disease is on the increase. Several of the fast food establishments in the country are currently suspected to be processing their products with fats and oils high in TFAs.
The Pan America Health Organisation and the WHO have rolled out a six-year plan to eliminate Trans Fatty Acids from industrial food production by the year 2025. Do you think this is something Nigeria could take a lead on beginning from home?
Nigeria is already a signatory to the WHO-led REPLACE initiative. Efforts have already commenced regarding putting in place the appropriate regulations and enabling environment for limiting TFAs in the country’s food supply chain. If these efforts are expedited and sustained, Nigeria will certainly be among the next wave of countries globally that are able to meet the expectations before the deadline date of 2023.
What is the most misconstrued notion about trans-fat and what should it be?
The most misconstrued notion which inadvertently generates trans fatty acids is that partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) which are solid at room temperature and are easier to transport and store for long periods, produce crispier and more tasty food products. While this might have been shown to be the case, there are several healthier alternatives that do not contain high PHO content that produces similarly crispy and tasty foods, are not expensive, and have long shelf-lives.
If you were to offer advice or guidance, what would it be and to who?
Key advice to offer to all Nigerians is for them to become increasingly conscious and aware of the contents and effects of the various foods they consume especially TFAs through building the habits of reading labels on food products, seeking for information from credible sources, and following the science that will enable them to protect themselves and their loved ones from avoidable suffering and ill health.