Thought Leadership

Trans-Fats and Health: The Hidden Danger Lurking in Your Food

3 Mins read

Olayemi Amusile and Chibuike Alagboso (Lead Writers)

Vegetable and groundnut oil are familiar cooking ingredients in many Nigerian homes. While they add flavour to meals, using the wrong cooking fat, can increase the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially heart disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes trans-fats as unsaturated fatty acids of natural or industrial origin. The natural trans-fats are derived from ruminants (cows and sheep). Industrially produced trans-fats are formed during the industrial process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, converting the liquid into a solid, and creating “partially hydrogenated” oils (PHO).
They can increase the risk of heart disease because they increase “bad” cholesterol (called low-density lipoproteins) and decrease “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins), leading to the buildup of fatty deposits that can clog blood vessels and lead to a heart attack.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Foods prepared with these industrially produced artificial trans fatty acids have several benefits that make them appealing, such as improved texture, better taste, and enhanced shelf life. However, evidence links the consumption of trans-fats to several health issues, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, inflammation and insulin resistance. The importance of addressing trans-fats in our diets cannot be overemphasised as it heightens the global burden of diet-related diseases and calls for an urgent need to raise awareness about their harmful effects.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

A global solution to a global challenge

Eliminating industrially manufactured trans-fats from the global food supply is considered a “low-hanging fruit” that could potentially prevent up to 17 million deaths globally by 2040. Currently, there are ongoing global efforts in place to address challenges posed by industrial trans-fats. The WHO’s REPLACE plan which seeks to eliminate trans-fat from the global food supply by 2023, guides nations through a set of six strategic actions to reduce and eliminate industrially produced trans fatty acids (TFA).

Image credit: World Health Organization

To eliminate this risk factor, measures such as mandatory and voluntary TFA labelling, reformulation of food products, and local or national bans on TFA, all with the shared objective of curtailing TFA consumption are critical. Remarkably, some countries like Denmark have completely banned industrially produced TFA from their food supply, while countries like the United States, Canada and South Korea have put in place mandatory labelling and regulation practices through the diligent execution of comprehensive policies and vigilant monitoring initiatives.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

What has Nigeria done to eliminate industrially manufactured trans-fats?

Following South Africa’s trans-fats elimination in 2018, Nigeria took the bold step of adopting a trans fatty acid regulation policy, estimated to save over 1000 lives annually. The Federal Government of Nigeria, through the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), commenced the process of joining countries implementing best practices to eliminate trans-fat following the WHO’s REPLACE Package.

This was in a collaborative effort for a trans-fat free Nigeria by trans-fat free Nigeria coalition members and partners which includes organisations like the Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Nigeria Heart Foundation, Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), World Health Organisation (WHO), Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), and Resolve to Save Lives (RTSL). So far, the trans-fat free Nigeria coalition through advocacy efforts has led to NAFDAC updating the Fats and Oil Regulation 2005 to Fats, Oil and Food Containing Fats and Oil Regulation 2022. The regulation has also addressed the second pathway for eliminating industrially produced TFAs by setting a limit of no more than 2% (0.02 ppm) of the total fats in fat, oil and food containing fats and oil products in line with WHO recommendations. NAFDAC also addressed the requirement to label trans-fats by gazetting the Pre-packaged Food Labelling Regulation of 2005 to 2022.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Here’s where you come in

While these efforts are being made at the policy level, there’s a need for you to take personal responsibility by being deliberate about what makes up the food you consume. You can do this by:

  1. Reading labels and opting for food with zero trans fatty acid content. As much as possible, consume more homemade foods to control the type of oil in your diet and use healthier choices in food preparation.
  2. Reduce the consumption of processed foods and opt for healthier, unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits.
  3. Check the labelling of processed food to determine the quantity of trans-fats present.
  4. Use more trans-fat-free alternatives especially when shopping for margarine or spread, choose “trans-fat-free” or “zero trans fats” options.
  5. While heating oils do not create trans-fats compared to industrial processes, it does increase trans-fat concentration. It is also advisable to avoid over-using cooking oils at home or for other commercial purposes.

Although it will require a collaborative effort from everyone to minimise and subsequently reduce the intake of trans-fats in Nigeria, adopting these recommendations will help improve public health and reduce the burden of trans-fat-associated cardiovascular diseases. It is also critical for the government to regularly monitor food service channels to ensure trans-fats are eliminated, and easy-to-read labels are used for food products. In addition, policies need to be put in place to ensure public compliance in the consumption of trans-fat free food.

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