HEALTH: Why trans fats on your plate are a threat

International Institute of Legal Affairs (IILA) Chief Executive Officer, Ms Celine Awuor speaks to journalists in Nairobi on April 14, 2022. PHOTO/Aggrey Omboki, The Scholar Media Africa.

You probably enjoy that meal embellished with a generous touch of cooking oil that promises a treat for the taste buds.

The oil sparkles in the soup or glitters in the various treats featured on expertly prepared platters or is unseen, wrapped up in attractive packaging or flavour.

It could also be the smooth, oily but tantalizing edge of a delicious kebab or the tempting pull of a nyama choma roast on an evening out with friends.

Perhaps it is a quick sausage snack on the roadside, that bite or round of cakes and cookies passed around the office during tea or coffee break.

It might hardly occur to you that regular consumption of such tasty meals could increase your risk of developing heart disease.

This is because they contain trans fats.

According to nutritionist Daisy Lenjo, trans fats are not fit for regular consumption because of the risk they carry in lowering LDL cholesterol in the body.

“Trans fats increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which could raise the risk of heart disease including strokes and heart attacks,” she says.

Ms Lenjo says LDL is also known as bad cholesterol because it contributes to clogging or buildup of fat deposits in arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis.

This narrows the arteries, forcing the heart to pump harder to move the blood through them.

Arteriosclerosis increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease (PAD).

HDL cholesterol is regarded as the “good” cholesterol because having healthy levels in one’s body may provide some protection from heart attack and stroke.

HDL carries LDL or bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the LDL is broken down and passed from the body.

Good cholesterol or HDL does not completely flush LDL cholesterol from the arteries. Only about one-third to a quarter of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL.

According to the nutritionist, trans fatty acids (TFAs) also cause insulin resistance and increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

“Dietary TFAs create inflammation and increase the risk of the development of cancerous lesions,” says Ms Lenjo.

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body.

They store excess energy from the food and drink we consume.

“A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol is linked with fatty buildups within the artery walls, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke,” says heart health website:

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are the main source of industrially-produced trans fats.

“PHO is an ingredient in many foods, including margarine, vegetable shortening, Vanaspati ghee, fried foods and doughnuts, baked goods such as crackers, biscuits, and pies, pre-mixed products such as pancake and hot chocolate mix,” the WHO website page on trans fats reads.

The health agency also identified confectioneries, street treats and restaurant delicacies as sources of trans fats in our diets.

“Baked and fried street and restaurant foods often contain industrially-produced trans fats,” adds the WHO.

WHO says these foods can be prepared safely without trans fats as an ingredient.

“All of these products can be made without industrially-produced trans fats,” says the health agency.

International Institute of Legal Affairs (IILA) Chief Executive Officer Ms Celine Awuor is quick to remind Kenyans that even refined snacks contain some level of TFAs.

“Biscuits, cakes, fried fast foods and other refined products contain TFAs,” she says.

In a bid to reduce the harmful effects of trans fats in Kenya, IILA has launched a campaign to eliminate the product from our diet.

She is concerned about the frequently rising prices of cooking oils that have pushed an increasing number of Kenyans into settling for cheaper options that stay solid at room temperature.

“These are the trans fats we need to avoid,” says Ms Awuor.

According to the legislative lobby boss, the campaign will involve creating awareness on the dangers of trans fats consumption among stakeholders.

“We are engaged in a campaign that will include the consumers’ associations, members of parliament, policymakers like the ministry of health and members of the public,” said Ms Awuor in a Nairobi press briefing done on April 14, 2022.

She adds that the non-communicable disease burden has increased in the country, adding that continued consumption of trans fats is only worsening the crisis.

“The cumulative cost of treating NCDs is already very high nationally, regionally and globally.

“NCD treatment costs drain household incomes because the people suffering hospitalization and dying are mostly middle-aged and elderly,” says Ms Awuor.

She has fingered weak product labeling laws as responsible for the sea of confusion surrounding consumers as they shop for various food products.

Ms Awuor says the weak legislation is a gap the suppliers of products with TFAs are exploiting to sell dangerous to duct labeling laws do not compel the manufacturers on the packaging.

“For instance, cooking oils are cholesterol, though margarine like Blue Band label claims that its hydrogenation levels are low,” says the CEO.

She reveals that most of the products that contain trans fats are incorrectly labelled or not labelled at all, adding that this leaves the consumer vulnerable to uncontrolled consumption.

“Labeling of the products should be clear. It is currently vague, and hence misleading to the consumer. It does not highlight the level of trans fats contained in the fat mixture,” she says.

She stresses that incorrect product information amounts to deceiving the public and is illegal.

“Placing unsubstantiated claims on products is illegal,” says Ms Awuor.

She sees a further deterioration of the quality of refined foodstuffs if the situation is left unchecked by regulation.

“The danger here lies in leaving the industry to say what it wants about the products, for instance, the false claim that their products are cholesterol-free.

It becomes dangerous for the consumers when such claims are misleading,” says the public health advocate.

The IILA chief executive advocates for TFA elimination but is emphatic that more concerted efforts are required to deal with its threat conclusively.

“Removal of lipids or PHOs from our diets results in substantial health benefits.

Similarly, the replacement of TFAs with unsaturated fatty acids decreases the risk of cardiovascular diseases,” the IILA chief executive recommends.

She adds that elimination is an effective measure that would also require other measures to realize tangible health befits for consumers.

“Elimination of TFAs is just one of the tools at the state healthcare system’s disposal.

However, it cannot work in isolation as it needs a combination with other measures to achieve better health for Kenyans,” says Ms Awuor.

Among the healthy alternatives the IILA chief proposes are sunflower, olive, corn and canola oils.

She admits that the trans fats consumption problem is not as pronounced in the rural areas but says the situation could change with the increased modernization of food systems.

“People in the rural setup can access healthier alternatives due to relative abundance of natural food supply.

This is however subject to change as more and more refined products find their way into the local food chains in rural areas,” she says.

Ms Awuor wants the state regulatory arms to take up the fight of reducing trans fats in our diets.

“We are urging the health ministry and other concerned state departments to move with speed and protect Kenyans from health complications caused by trans fats,” she says.

The IILA boss insists that the state cannot afford to stand by and watch its citizens teat their way into ill-health and huge medical bills caused by lifestyle diseases.

“Our government made a commitment to protect Kenyans through the National Strategic Plan for the Prevention and Elimination of NCDs.

We are pressing for full implementation that includes stricter regulation of harmful products that are likely to spur the development of lifestyle diseases,” says Ms Awuor.

On her part, Ms Lenjo worries about the rising prevalence of NCDs.

“In East Africa, the prevalence of NCDs has risen tremendously, indicating that this upward trajectory is likely to overtake the burden of communicable diseases,” says Ms Lenjo.

By 2030, the WHO estimates that there will be a 27 per cent increase in non-communicable diseases, which translates into an additional 28 million deaths.

In Sub Saharan Africa, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) cause over 50 per cent of all reported adult deaths.

Closer home, in the East African Community (EAC), up to 40 per cent of all deaths can be attributed to NCDs.

Ms Lenjo says a change in food policy could save almost 18m lives on the planet over the next 25 years.

“TFAs can be eliminated and alternatively replaced with healthier oils without affecting the taste or quality of food,” says the nutritionist.

“Eliminating TFAs from our diets is projected to save 17.5m lives over the next quarter-century,” she adds.

IILA will also be engaging the government and development partners on the development and implementation of policies for the production of healthier oils for the domestic and import markets.

“We are also seeking the implementation of agricultural policies to support the development of healthier alternative oils,” Ms Awuor tells The Scholar Media Africa.

WHO says the trans fats situation can be monitored and controlled in member countries.

“Monitoring and controlling trans fat usage in countries with large informal food sectors may be challenging, as they are difficult to regulate.

However, by mandating that the oil and fats industry limit or ban trans fat content, the oils and fats available on the market can help drive change in product formulation in the informal food sector,” says the health body.

“Additionally, a trans fat monitoring system including random tests in the formal and informal sectors can be established, with specific penalties,” the WHO adds.

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