HEALTH: Is what you are eating killing you slowly?

Kales. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Ever wondered where the food you buy at the supermarket or greengrocer’s stall comes from?

Pay close attention. It could prove to be a way of avoiding food-related diseases.

According to experts, the food we eat could be packed with harmful chemicals that include compounds from pesticides and heavy metals from contaminated water used for irrigation.

United Nations data indicates that the global burden of foodborne diseases affect individuals of all ages, particularly children under-5 and persons living in low-income countries.

“Foodborne illnesses, caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites, are infectious and toxic. They can enter the body through contaminated food and water. It is, therefore, important to ensure the food stays safe at every step of the food chain, from production to consumption,” reads the WHO document on the subject.

The United Nations also recognizes food-related diseases as a major health challenge across the globe, with 600m cases of illness reported every year.

“With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies, disproportionally affecting vulnerable and marginalised people, especially women and children, populations affected by conflict, and migrants,” says the UN World Food Safety Day on its website.

WHO recognizes food safety as a shared responsibility between governments, producers and consumers.

“Everyone has a role to play from farm to table to ensure the food we consume is safe and healthy,” says the UN body.

Dr Kate Kibaara, a nutritionist, researcher and organic food production lobbyist says health begins at the food that we eat.

“At the basic level, we are made up of cells. Cells make up tissues, which make up the organs. If you feed the cells, tissues and organs with the right foods, then the body will thrive,” she says.

Dr Kibaara says our bodies are designed to absorb and break down particular chemical compounds in foods.

When we consume refined foods that contain chemicals the body is not familiar with, it is confused on what to do and often ends up storing the foreign substances to our detriment.

“Body cells need nutrition to replicate, feed and grow. The human body understands nutrients in their original state, and not the enhanced chemical structure of refined foods with additives and other components,” she says.

Dr Kibaara says the accumulation of these chemicals often leads to the development of disease.

“Regular consumption of foods with a preservative like formaldehyde, which is a preservative used in most beef and meat products will confuse the body.

The body is not used to breaking down such a compound. It will then resort to storing up deposits which can then lead to disease. We attract cancers because of the unnatural or non-living elements we consume,” she says.

According to the nutritionist, the development of nutrition-related disease in the body is often a slow, gradual process, which can be catalyzed by eating the wrong or harmful foods.

“The process of developing disease can be slow and gradual, but the role played by food cannot be taken for granted. If you feed your body with the wrong chemical compounds, then it will begin to function poorly and you will fall sick,” says the nutritionist.   

Dr Kibaara is the founder and CEO of Kate’s Organics, a company that provides solutions to human health and well-being. It also promotes a healthy lifestyle across Kenya and beyond.  

She recommends a keener appreciation of the food on sale by Kenyan consumers. This, she says, will ensure a healthier diet and a safer future.

“As an adult, you are the one that is responsible for your health. There are things we may not be able to control like the air we breathe and other environmental factors. What we eat however is entirely up to us, and we must take this responsibility serious if we want to live healthy lives,” she says.

On March 17, 2021, the Environmental Working Group released a list of the most contaminated foods entitled the Dirty Dozen.

It placed strawberries, spinach and kale or sukumawiki as the top three products in the lineup. Other foods listed were nectarines, apples, grapes, cherries, peaches, hot peppers and bell peppers.

On its list of clean foods, avocado was tops. Other foods that made it to the list based on the low contamination levels were sweet corn, pineapples, onions, papayas, frozen sweet peas, eggplant, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, Kiwifruit, cauliflower, mushrooms, honeydew and cantaloupe.

Ms Rosina Mbenya who is the country coordinator of the NGO and civil society organization (CSO) network known as Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM), says the pollution of rivers, lakes and underground water is also contributing to the food-borne disease burden and mortality in the country.

PELUM Kenya is the Kenyan country chapter of the PELUM Association and has a membership of 57 Member Organizations.

“As a result of pollution from factory waste and other effluents, some of the water used for irrigation obtained from rivers and lakes is harmful because it contains heavy metals and other dangerous chemical compounds,” says Rosina.

Ms Mbenya is of the opinion that the organically grown food can reduce the risk of getting sick or even dying from the consumption of contaminated food.

“Global statistics indicate that 1 out of 10 people die from food related contamination. Eating organically grown food will lower these risks and also boost the economy,” says the PELUM Kenya country coordinator.

Ms Mbenya advises consumers to look for the Kilimohai certification on organic food products when out shopping for food.

The certificate dubbed the “Kilimohai Organic Certification Mark” is issued by the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN).

KOAN routinely does surveillance on certified farmers to ensure they comply with organic standards. It also engages research institutions and universities in conducting random pesticide residue analysis.

For those who wish to shop in organic markets in Nairobi, visit the Organic Farmers Market next to Hillcrest and Karengata Farmers’ Market which are both situated in Karen, the Kids Ventures in Garden Estate, the US Embassy Organic Farmers Market as well as the Community Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Environment Programme (C-Shep) farmers market in Ongata Rongai.

Supermarket chains with organic options include Carrefour and Chandarana Foodplus have organic food sections.

Groceries that stock organically grown foods include The Corner Shop at Diamond Plaza in Parklands, Zucchini at ABC Place, Westlands and Kalimoni Greens in Karen.

For those that want organic foods delivered to their doorstep, Mlango Farm, Kalimoni Greens, Sylvia Basket and Greenspoon, and Mlango Farm are on standby.

In the hotel and restaurant circuit, Bridges Organic Restaurant located in the Central Business District serves over 80 percent organic food.

On his part, Dr David Amudavi who is the director of the Provision Africa Trust says food safety says the market is responding well to organic products.

“As more Kenyans become conscious of the link between food and healh, their appreciation for locally grown, organic foods is also growing. These foods do not contain agrochemical or pesticide residues,” he says.

He however voices his concern over what her terms the mushrooming of fast food and nyama choma eateries in Kenya’s urban areas.

Dr Mudavi has called on researchers to carry out a health status survey on Kenyans in such areas to ascertain the impact of the high-fat, high cholesterol meats and related products they are consuming.

“The trend of nyama choma establishments mushrooming all over our urban areas is a worrying one. Our researchers should study the effect of this type of diet after five years and I’m sure they will be amazed by the results,” he said on a local television show on Monday.

Dr Mudavi has urged Kenyans to take up organically grown food as the best dietary weapon against lifestyle diseases.

He says food safety covers all aspects pf production from the far to the market.

“We need to examine food safety right from the farm. What are the fertilizers, pesticides and other farm inputs used on the product? How is it stored, transported and packaged for sale?”he poses.

The experts are in agreement on the need for consumers to demand for high-quality, safe and healthy foods from suppliers that contains zero pesticide residues.

“As consumers, it is important to embrace organic food products. After all, wouldn’t want to eat safe and healthy food that is free of hazardous chemicals?” asks Ms Mbenya.

World Food Safety Day was marked on June 7, 2021.

This year’s theme is ‘Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow’. It stresses that production and consumption of safe food has immediate and long-term benefits for people, the planet and the economy.

“Food safety is everyone’s business. Recognizing the systemic connections between the health of people, animals, plants, the environment and the economy will help us meet the needs of the future,” adds the WHO.

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