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Trans Fat: Living in ignorance of a silent killer

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NAFDAC, trans fat and the heart of Nigerians' dining tables
Iya Dupe’s frying pan and blackened vegetable oil. Note the bottled vegetable oil (bottom right) from where the frying pan is topped up. PHOTO: Agbonkhese Oboh.

Trans fat does the heart no good. However, Nigerians daily accumulate it in their systems through the direct and indirect consumption of fats and oils, which are essential parts of food. How do these vital dietary components morph into trans fat and become dangerous to the heart? How aware is the everyday Nigerian of this danger? Is the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) doing enough to regulate its occurrence in foods? What is the fate of the Fats and Oils Regulations 2019? Agbonkhese Oboh, in this piece, seeks answers to these questions and more.

Mrs Joy Kalu has been frying akara (bean cake) for 20 years. She knows what oil gives her products the best of tastes and aroma, and higher profits. Most mornings, students and parents form a long queue in front of her stall at Ikotun, Lagos, haranguing for balls of oily hot akara.

“I make the best akara here because I use the best groundnut oil,” she said. When she found that ‘good’ groundnut oil brand, she said, “I use it again and again, without the quality changing.” Her constant reuse of oil this way, is one way through which trans fat gets into the body. But Mrs Kalu has never heard of trans fat.

NAFDAC, trans fat and the heart of Nigerians' dining tables
Mrs Kalu and her husband (and partner in the business). PHOTO: Agbonkhese Oboh.

How did she discover the “best groundnut oil?” Over the years, she had used oil that foamed so much she couldn’t see the akara balls inside the wide metal bowl. At another time, the oil and the akara balls smelled so bad “e dey turn my belle”[sic]. These are signs of unhealthy oil. But what is trans fat?

Fats are part of diets and with oils, form a class of food called fats and oils. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine/MedlinePlus, they provide energy for bodily functions, besides helping with warmth, skin and hair and in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). However, carbohydrates are the sources of the energy the body needs and when extra energy is needed, such as during exercises, the body turns to the backup — fats.

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Dr. Ramon Moronkola, a consultant cardiologist at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) puts it in practical terms: “Trans fat, known as trans fatty acid, can be described as a mixture of different unsaturated fatty acids that occurs naturally or from processed fats and oils in several processed food items like margarine.

“It is one of the most dangerous food components as it increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases by causing an increase in the LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduction in the HDL (good) cholesterol. Excessive consumption of food high in trans fat increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and obesity, among others.”

The killer-trans fat

Victory Agbujie, is a medical student at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State and also a public health advocate. He gave a simplified explanation of what trans fat is and how it kills. He said like other types, trans fat are found naturally occurring in some foods, such as meat and cooking oils, but in “harmless” quantities. The killer-trans fat, he added, are industrially produced and are in processed foods as well as reused fats and oils. “To increase the shelf life of products and give the food they produce good texture and taste, hydrogen is introduced into oil,” he explained. “Since it lasts longer and is relatively cheaper, they are used for industrial food production. Therefore, processed and packed foods are high in trans fat, like margarine. Fast food outlets also use such oils in their products.”

On how it leads to death, Agbujie said: “Low-density lipoprotein is bad cholesterol because it blocks the arteries. If any of the ‘clogs’ that blocks the arteries breaks off, it goes to the heart, causing a heart attack; or to the brain, resulting in a stroke. On the other hand, HDL (good cholesterol) moves excess ones back to the liver, to be broken down and excreted as waste products.”

Dr. Jerome Mafeni, Project Adviser for Trans Fatty Acids Elimination, NHED, at a press briefing on World Food Day in 2020, said: “Beyond coronary heart diseases, trans fats have been linked to increases in the risk of diabetes, obesity, cancers, dementia and death. Estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that over 250,000 persons die yearly resulting from complications associated with the consumption of foods high in trans fats.” The WHO puts a specific number for 2010 at 500,000 deaths globally.

The frightening thing about these statistics is that they will likely keep rising because there are so many Mrs Kalus and many more customers. An example is Bayo. He has been a commercial motorcycle rider (okada) for four years. In that period, he mostly eats breakfast and lunch at food sellers. Asked if he is aware of the dangers of using substandard oils to cook or reusing cooking oil, he said: “I do, but I don’t know how it causes harm. I am just not comfortable with any akara or other foods that are prepared with thick oil.” He explained “thick” to mean blackened. Bayo looks very healthy. But, like many other people who rely on food sellers during most of their working hours, the damage trans fat has done to the body is insidious.

As to the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases linked to trans fat in the patients he has encountered, Dr.Moronkola said: “Prevalence of cardiovascular diseases is increasing in our environment and the consumption of trans fatty acid in fast foods, processed foods is playing a significant role. Many countries have set out regulations to limit the amount of trans fat content in food items. Countries like Denmark have been able to reduce their rate of cardiovascular disease by regulating the content in food.

“We should read the content of any processed food before consuming it. Ensure the trans fat content is not high,” he advised, adding that “the Federal Government should monitor compliance of the recommendation by food manufacturers.”

The analyses and explanations by the experts reveal that Mrs Kalu’s akara balls, no matter how pleasant the aroma or sweet the taste, are sources of trans fat once the oil has been used, as she said, “again and again.”

It is the same with Iya Dupe. She is the ad hoc cook for the staff and students of a group of schools (creche, playgroup, nursery, primary and secondary). Also, she sells food to okada men (commercial motorcycle riders) and families in the neighbourhood, among whom her meals are popular. She fries her fish, meat and plantain with the same oil daily until it is too black to make what is being fried visible. But Nigerian authorities know the dangers. And so, a set of rules was made to regulate the productions, packaging, labelling and consumption of trans fat.

NAFDAC, the regulations and labels

There is a set of rules lying on the “table” of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC. The rules are in a 22-page document called ‘Fats and Oils Bill, 2019’. At its conception in 2019, the public had 60 days (ending March 9, 2020) to make contribution(s). Part of the regulations is that: “Where a claim that a foodstuff is ‘trans-fat free,’ is made on the label or in an advertisement, the content of trans-fat shall be less than 1g of the total fat or oil in the final product. For a product that contains 2g of fat or more, the nutritional label shall indicate the types and levels of each of the fat components in the product as saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids and cholesterol.”

Any offender faces “imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to a fine not exceeding N500,000 or to both,” and for “a body corporate, to a fine not exceeding N750,000.” In addition to the fine and jail term, property can be forfeited to the Federal Government.

Two things are obvious from the regulations and punishments. First, when a label says certain food items are ‘trans fat free’ it is only true if they are natural foods such as fruits, tubers and vegetables. But for processed foods, it’s not entirely true as ‘trans fat free’ means the quantity is low (“less than 1g”). The reality is that one individual would likely eat more than one serving of that food. Over time, therefore, the trans fat can accumulate to a dangerous level. The second thing is that the penalty is relatively lenient— even with the forfeiture.

However, even with the leniency, the regulations have been effectively silenced. The silence is deafening: from the Public Relations unit of NAFDAC to the Registration and Regulations Directorate, to the offices of the Director and Deputy Director of Food Registration. Inquiries about the enlightenment and publicity campaigns about the ills of trans fat usually start well until “Fats and Oils Bill, 2019” is mentioned. That’s when the walls spring up and they realise “I am a civil servant, go to the Public Relations Unit;” “I will get back to you,” “call the deputy to fix a time for you to see the boss,” “the director that should answer your questions has retired.” These were the words of two staff of NAFDAC’s Public Relations unit and a director in the agency.

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The silence over the trans fat regulations extends to the National Assembly because only a senior member of the House of Representatives Committee on Health gave a cryptic response: “NAFDAC is yet to brief us on this,” he said, preferring to remain anonymous. This seeming lack of interest in this regard, means the quantity of trans fat that leaves Nigerians’ dining tables for their hearts, is determined by unregulated importers and retailers whose sole drive is profit, and food sellers that know nothing about the dangers of reusing oils.

Importers and retailers

Without regulations, the borders become really porous and the sellers make a killing. Mr. X. is a high-ranking Customs official stationed at the Seme border. According to the Customs man, “Over 500 different types of trucks loaded with all sorts of cooking oils cross the borders into Nigeria daily. We just collect money (bribes), ensure they don’t take official routes and then turn a blind eye.”

Asked why they allow such to happen, he said: “It’s big business for everyone and the market is there. We know it’s dangerous, as no one is checking for quality or expiry date. But it is what it is— business as usual. These goods are banned already, so what quality are you checking for? In any case, what can one do when the front of some houses in Idiroko, for instance, is Ogun State (Nigeria), the back is Benin Republic, while the side is Lagos State (Nigeria)? All we do is ensure if the ‘importer’ is bringing in oil, they don’t mix your goods with rice. If it’s rice, don’t mix with oil.”

The result of the lawlessness is the kind of palm oil Shola, a housewife, bought that ended up spoiling her pot of soup. She said: “The soup was smelling and blackish. And I bought it from someone I know. Over time I have learned to stay away from retailers when it comes to oil. I buy from those Ibo traders who bring their oil from the village. Once the oil gets to the retailers, it becomes a mixture of colours and water.”

It is so testy a situation that Shola looks around furtively while talking. She was wary of being caught talking to a journalist by the oil sellers. Any mention of the matter to retailers meets brick walls rivalling the ones NAFDAC set up over Fats and Oils Regulations 2019. But Ifeanyi came up with some insights.

Ifeanyi sells grains— rice, beans, maize, groundnut, gari— in Mushin area of Lagos, and the condiments for cooking them, including oils. “Sir,” he began, “we try to serve everybody. There are different grades to what we sell. So, there are very good oils. But they are expensive. There are also the cheap ones. Of course, it is based on quality. Most of the cheap ones are those that get into the country through the land borders. The worst is the type that you have to melt to use. I don’t sell that. But it is cheap and that is what the food sellers, akara sellers and other commercial users go for because it increases their profit. The best are the ones that carry a particular sign with a heart shape.”

He explained the price range with the 150cl (1.5-litre) bottles pictured in his shop. “You can get the type I said you have to melt before use for between N800 and N1,000. Those food sellers whose main concern is profit use it. As I said, I don’t sell that type. The next grade is anything from N1,400 to N1,700. The best is the vegetable oil that is sealed. I can’t sell it for less than N2,000. And I am talking about a size smaller than 150cl.” He said the ones that carry the “particular sign with a heart shape” are usually the expensive ones.

A section of Ifeanyi’s shop displaying the cheap vegetable oil. PHOTO: Agbonkhese Oboh.

Remains of the day from Nigerian Heart Foundation

The seal Ifeanyi is talking about is given by Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF) to manufacturers of oils that meet certain standards.

To earn this heart-friendly oil badge, the manufacturer gives samples to NHF, which then subjects the samples to various tests for bad fats/oil, vitamins, potassium and so on. Any failure, the manufacturer is notified and improvements are made until the NHF is satisfied. Then the badge is given for a period of 12 months, after which the process of evaluation is repeated.

Dr. Kingsley Akinroye, a cardiovascular health physician and the Executive Director of NHF, called the project Nigerian Heart Foundation Front-of-Pack Labelling Programme. He said: “The programme has been on for about 15 years. About 10 brands carry the mark. Before the pass mark is given, we subject the samples to stringent tests within and outside Nigeria.”

Akinroye noted that some manufacturers do their own tests and bring them the results for approval. “But we do our own assessment. And if their results do not meet our standards, we don’t give out our badge of approval,” Akinroye added. He said the project is a collaboration with NAFDAC. According to Dr. Akinroye, “Food manufacturers who are interested in the Nigerian Heart Foundation Front-of-Pack Labelling Programme approach us for assessment.”

This means manufacturers are not under any legal obligation to submit samples for NHF checks. So, all a neatly bottled vegetable oil needs is a tag— Cholesterol free. And many manufacturers are taking advantage of this vacuum. Even bottles of groundnuts (peanuts) carry labels that announce a number of nutrients and their quantities per bottle.

The NHF’s badge of healthy oil. PHOTO: Agbonkhese Oboh.

Meanwhile, oil (vegetable, animal, red, margarine, butter and so on) is in the heart of every Nigerian’s dining table. This is why its manufacture, sale, storage and consumption need the Fats and Oils Regulations, 2019. Otherwise, the many Mrs Kalus will continue to reuse oil for akara; the Sholas will bank on experience to buy the “right” oil, Customs will continue to allow “business as usual” so that the Ifeanyis can serve everyone according to the type and quality of oils they need and/or can afford. Therefore, to keep the regulations document locked away is NAFDAC’s Governing Council killing Nigerians — slowly.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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