Trans Fat Regulations: Clock Ticks Away As Bad Oils Rock Nigerians’ Well-being

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“Trans fat is the least thing that shoppers are bothered about. Like some people here I only check for NAFDAC stamp and expiration date on the food item I pick from the shelf,” Bukola Sunday said as she stared at a shelf packed with various brands of vegetable oil inside a community shopping mall in Alimosho, Lagos.

Bukola, despite admitting to trans fat being a ‘killer’ addition to foods in a chit-chat, said she barely recalled the term and its meaning due to her background in nutrition and dietetics. “Otherwise, it’s not a word an average Nigerian can relate with.”

She was right. Five other shoppers interviewed before her during the Lagos evening rush hour had said they were hearing the nutritional jargon — trans fat — for the first time, oftentimes needing more education from their interviewer.

“How can we check for something we don’t know?” Eze Nwagbo queried. “I hardly check for NAFDAC registration and expiration date on products. And now trans fat?”

When told that foods with trans fat — a toxic chemical — have been reported to cause cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, leading to death, Nwagbo, visibly shell-shocked replied: “We’re consumers, we only buy whatever is available in the market. But the government is in a position to know.. They should know better. Why can’t they save us from a dangerous chemical like this?”

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One of the line managers at the popular shopping mall, who only agreed to speak with The New Diplomat in confidence, said she has heard about trans-fat before. But she equally displayed little knowledge on the subject, revealing that checking for trans fat has never been a priority for mall owners while stocking up. “These days, for edible products, we’re keen about the production date, expiration date and whether the product has approval by NAFDAC (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control). These are the basic checks that our customers care about. Only a few of them go as far as paying attention to the nutritional value on products’ labels.” She would later agree to pass on the information from the enquiry-turned-sensitization to her management.

This newspaper gathered from health experts that whether you shop at the shopping malls, patronise your favourite eateries and restaurants or the akara (bean cake) and meat-pie sellers by the road side, the devil is in the details of what is on the food plate of many Nigerians as almost all Nigerian staples had been fingered to contain this chemical of concern.

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According to Dr. Yemisi Folasire of the Department of Human Nutrition, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, while the consumption of unlabelled oils is a ticking bomb among the vast population, most of the labelled oils, whose containers carry ‘No Cholesterol’ available on supermarkets and groceries’ shelves don’t often live up to the hype.

Despite the fictitious claims by manufacturers and importers of vegetable oils in the country, Folasire revealed to The New Diplomat that many of the labelled oils still contain high-level of cholesterol, save a few certified by the Nigerian Heart Foundation.

A study she co-authored and published in the Nigerian Journal of Nutritional Sciences showed that “Cooking oils most frequently consumed by respondents had 45-50g/100g of saturated fat.” The polyunsaturated fatty acid and monounsaturated fatty acid in the oils in question were in the proportion of 29g/100 and 3-42g/100g respectively, something she said significantly increases bad cholesterol in the blood, blocks blood vessels and aggravates heart diseases. The medical expert added that it is also a causative factor for Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

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The study further informed that “only 20.7% of the respondents surveyed had good knowledge of what constitutes a healthy oil, while 79.3% had poor knowledge.” 430 undergraduate students of the University of Ibadan formed the sample size for the cross-sectional study.

Research has since shown that Trans-fats or Trans Fatty Acid (TFA) are unsaturated fats that are harmful to the body. Used mostly in packaged foods or for foods that require deep frying including, industrially produced trans-fat intake is a risk factor for coronary heart disease and mortality. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 110,000 Nigerians and 500,000 people globally die yearly due to heart failure traced to the agent of slow death — trans fat.

While the naturally occurring trans-fats are found in ruminants, the artificially produced trans-fat are created through the process of partial hydrogenation of oils — passing oils through hydrogen to form semi solid.

In spite of its public health concerns, checks reveal that as more Nigerians continue to embrace foreign food culture and cuisines, food manufacturers and fast-food outlets often lace foods with trans fat to increase shelf life, make them more crispy in a race to win over consumers’ taste bud and declare high profit margin — all at the expense of citizens’ health and well-being.

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In an interview, Executive Director, Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), Dr. Jerome Mafeni told The New Diplomat that “government hasn’t mounted significant campaign to sensitise the public,” noting that the Nigerian government’s failure to gazette the trans-fat regulations has not helped matters. “What is more important is that government puts in place the right regulation, the right enforcement, so that those who manufacture, those who imports don’t use large quantities of partially hydrogenated oils, stop using them, and stop selling them and stop putting them in our market for the medium or small scale industries to use in their products.”

The WHO had in 2018 launched the REPLACE action package, a strategic approach to eliminating industrially produced trans-fat from food supplies by 2023.

Taking a cue from the WHO’s steps, NAFDAC published its first draft regulations in 2019, with a reduction of trans fats content in processed and packaged foods, edible oils and other food products to 2gramme/100gramme. After back-and-forth lasting for two years the agency approved the regulations and transmitted it to the Federal Ministry of Health for further approval. The document was later transmitted to the Federal Ministry of Justice for gazetting as required by law. However, The New Diplomat understands that the document was yet to be gazetted as at the time this report was published.

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“The regulations are already with Ministry of Justice, they’ve already done the review and put it in a gazzetting format. But it’s our expectation that between now and the end of this year, the gazette should definitely have been finalised and released.” Mafeni added. His organisation — NHED and Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) have been leading the Transfat Free Nigeria Campaign, a coalition of Nigerian Civil Societies.

Spokesperson for Mr Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Dr. Umar Gwandu was contacted by The New Diplomat to react to the delay in gazetting the document of immense public health importance by his ministry. However, several calls lasting a week were neither answered nor returned. Also, text messages sent to his phone had yet to receive a response as of the time of this reporting.

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The delay in gazetting the fat and oil regulations continues as austerity measures and cost of living crisis in the country have forced more Nigerians looking for cheaper alternatives to opt for unlabelled cooking oils in the open market. To make matters worse, many have now resorted to re-using cooking oil repeatedly until it dries up, leading to a partial hydrogenation process which triggers cardiovascular diseases.

“Particularly now, when cost of living has gone above the roof, and people are barely able to survive. There’s mass poverty across the country, which of course makes people more vulnerable to the kinds of choices that they have (including bad oils).” Mafeni continues: “So yes, government needs to ramp up its passage of appropriate regulations, particularly the regulations on fats and oil that regulates trans fatty acids in foods.” More so, as further delay in gazetting the regulations could make Nigeria miss the 2023 set target by WHO for the elimination/limiting of trans-fat in global food chains.

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