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FG Mum As Fast, Junk Food Kill Nigerians

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Fast food

As experts allege ‘grand conspiracy’ against the local palm oil industry, TAIWO ALIMI investigates how Nigeria became a dumping ground for unhealthy cooking oil, high in cholesterol killing thousands annually through fast or junk food.

Ibadan-based chartered accountant, Gbolahan Olubisi, knew nothing about Trans Fatty Acids (TFA) otherwise known as trans fats (bad fat) till he landed at the cardiovascular disease wing of the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State, in 2019.

The 32-year-old had just lost his older brother and would never have attributed his heart attack to his voracious appetite for fast food until he was told at the hospital.

Olubisi had been brooding over the death of his only brother for weeks when he suffered a heart attack and became unconscious.

“I was taken to UCH where I was resuscitated. When my Blood Pressure (BP) was taken, it was way above the normal. The doctor told me I was lucky to be alive as I was suffering from Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) or simply put, heart disease, and my cholesterol level was high. I felt numbness on my left hand and leg, and a twist in my tongue that affected the way I talked. They said it was the beginning of stroke,” he said.

That was the beginning of his three-month stay at the CVD department of UCH. He said, “We had to send our children to our parents, while my wife stopped work temporarily to stay with me at the hospital. In the process, I lost my job; my wife only kept hers because she works in the state’s Ministry.  Till date, I’m yet to recover from the physical, economic, and social loss.”

Olubisi’s sojourn at UCH was an eye-opener. He said, “I saw children suffering from heart diseases. I thought high BP is associated with elderly people and because I am naturally hyperactive, I did not see myself as prone to heart disease.”

Following comprehensive tests, examination of his lifestyle, Olubisi was told to forever stay away from fast food, processed foods high in trans fat and unlabelled vegetable oil.

“I am an ardent consumer of junk food because they are tasty and it is one of the things that I indulge in without an apology. The very thing I love is gradually killing me,” he said.

But Olubisi probably has it easier, unlike Gabriel Ogwu, who has been suffering from CVD for 25 years. Since he started treatment, however, the 65-year-old said his cholesterol level has reduced.

He said, “Eating right is the key. I stopped taking sugar completely, reduced my salt intake and most importantly my family use palm oil for all our cooking in place of vegetable oil.”

There is no gainsaying Olubisi and Ogwu fell victim to their lust for Trans Fatty Acid (TFA), a toxic chemical often processed with foods by conglomerates that are into mass-produced food designed for commercial resale, with a strong priority placed on speed of service.

 What is Trans Fatty Acid (TFA)?

Little is known about TFA (otherwise known as ‘killer fat’ or ‘bad fat’); experts identify it as a poisonous chemical imported into food and oil through hydrogenation. This is a process by which liquid vegetable oil is made creamy when manufacturers convert some of its unsaturated fats into saturated ones. This process also rearranges the molecular shape of the remaining unsaturated fats. The resulting shape is an abnormal ‘trans’ shape. The creamier vegetable oil is said to be more durable and amenable to fast food production. For the food companies, it is cheaper to use trans fat because it enhances the flavour, texture, and shelf life of processed foods.

For instance, the French fries often served at many high brow fast food outlets reportedly taste nice because creamy oil high in trans fat is used. Thus several consumers, both young and old, may be consuming a high intake of ‘killer fat’ and increasing their cholesterol levels thus exposing them to CVDs.

Trans fats increase the level of bad cholesterol in the blood and the risk of heart disease. It also increases body weight, which is one of the leading causes of obesity and heart disease in children. It can also lead to cancer, argued health experts.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) fact sheet on CVDs state that, “CVDs are the number one cause of death globally,” meaning, more people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause of death.

It adds that an “estimated 17.9 million people died from CVDs in 2016, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, 85% are due to heart attack and stroke. Also, “over three quarters that is 75% of CVD deaths take place in low-income and middle-income countries,” such as Nigeria and many African countries. WHO adds that a higher intake of ‘killer fat’ increases CVDs risk by 23 per cent and mortality by 34 per cent.

Interestingly, TFA is all around us. It is high in baked foods; such as cakes, cookies, and pies. It also has a higher percentage in microwave popcorn: frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, such as biscuits, and rolls. In fried foods: it is high in French fries, doughnuts, and fried chicken and in non-dairy coffee creamer and certain margarine and vegetable oils.

In Nigeria, the figure is even scarier. The Executive Director, Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF) Dr. Kingsley Akinroye, disclosed that CVDs are top of the death chain of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Nigeria. It tops cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and sickle cell disease. In reference to WHO 2018 reports, CVDs account for 11%of deaths recorded under NCDs, cancer (4%), and diabetes (1%).

Dr. Jerome Mafeni, Trans Fatty Acids Technical Advisor, Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), also described CVD as a “time-bomb globally and in Nigeria.”

He said: “Globally, 523 million persons in 2019 had CVD, up from 422milion in 2015, while 18.6 million died from CVD in 2019 up from 8.92million in 2015 and it is the leading cause of disease globally accounting for one third of all global deaths.”

Mafeni noted that CVD has become a monumental burden on Nigeria’s lean resources; sufferers have to deal with complications including hypertensive heart disease (22%), cardiomyopathies (11.5%), stroke survivals (6.7 %), ischaemic (coronary) heart disease (0.7%), congenital heart disease (1%) of all births in a year and rheumatic heart disease (2.6%), which are negative products of trans fat and poor eating habits.

He calculated that of all the risk factors of CVD in Nigeria, unhealthy diet resulting from excessive intake of foods high in TFA is number one (74.8 degree) followed by physical inactivity (52 degree) and abnormal lipids (40 degrees).

 Legislation to the rescue?

But while other countries have taken a giant step to eradicate trans fat via legislation, Nigeria is still at the drafting stage of its laws.

Dr. Akinroye revealed that out of about 150 package vegetable oils on supermarkets’ shelves in the country, less than 10 of the products have been certified by the Foundation and most of them do not carry label detailing its content.

With multinational junk food outlets and mega supermarkets springing up daily in Nigerian cities, Akinroye, said packaged foods, oil and fats that have been rejected in their countries due to proper legislation and monitoring, have found their way on to shelves in Nigeria, where there are no laws against trans fat.

Dr Akinroye said Nigerians owe it to themselves to kick trans fat industrialists out of business. He said, “It is important that we take personal responsibility for our health. If we are aware of what we buy and eat, we would have solved the problem by buying only products that are labeled. If you are not buying their poison, they will not bring it in. Eating right is the key.”

Rolf Rosencrantz, Associate Director, Communications, Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), said it is possible for Nigeria to attain the WHO landmark for trans fat free world.

He said, “If Chile can do it, then Nigeria can. Chile achieved mandated TFA labeling first. The food industry pushed back initially, raising fear of increased prices. Small producers of baked goods had the greatest challenges with implementation but with monitoring, including periodic facility inspections, followed by some lab testing to ensure labels are correct, Chile is now considering adding a PHO ban.”

NAFDAC, still at drafting stage

Recall that, WHO, in 2013, activated REPLACE, a step-by-step guide for the elimination of industrial-produced TFA from the global food supply.

According to WHO Director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, “WHO calls on governments to use the REPLACE action package to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fatty-acids from the food supply? Implementing the six strategic actions in the REPLACE package will help achieve the elimination of Trans fats, and represent a major victory in the global fight against CVDs.”

REPLACE stands for Review dietary sources of industrially Trans fats, Promote the replacement of industrially trans fats, Legislate regulatory actions to eliminate industrially trans fats, Assess and monitor fats contents in the food supply, Create awareness of the negative health impact of industrially trans fats and Enforce compliance of policies and regulations.

By 2018, 23 countries had complied with Denmark blazing the trail in 2013 with legislations and enforcement. Canada, Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Latvia, Slovenia, Sweden, Armenia, Belarus, Kazahkstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia have followed suit to limiting Trans fats to 2% of total fat content in fats and oils. In Central/South America, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador, have joined the ‘good wagon,’ while in the Middle East, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait are not doing badly requiring labelling on packaged foods.

In Asia, India, Singapore, Philippines and South Korea have started the process while South Africa has set best practice mandatory limits on industrially-produced Trans fats in food, fats and oils.

This is not forgetting the Unites States, where the food industry has replaced trans fats with healthier alternatives, thanks to legislation on mandatory labeling, which has led to rapid decreases in intake.

However, eight years after WHO introduced REPLACE, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), saddled with the task of presenting a draft bill to the National Assembly (NASS) is still on the drafting stage.

In 2019, NAFDAC released two drafts on ‘Fats and Oil Regulations, 2019’ and Pre-packaged Food, Water and Ice labelling Regulations, 2019 for public scrutiny, but two years on, it is still at the same drafting stage.

According to Akinbode Oluwafemi, Executive Director, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), the process to eliminating trans fat in Nigeria, is slow and NAFDAC needs to move faster for Nigeria to join the league of countries that have key into the REPLACE agenda.

“We think NAFDAC’s pace is slow. For example if you look at the draft, it has a 2019 date and this is 2021 and we are still talking about draft. We have given our inputs since the draft was put in the public domain, which was supposed to end by March 2020, and we are still here.”

Dr Mafeni noted that once the bills are passed into laws, it will help to monitor and execute labelling of vegetable oils and other products to reduce trans fat in our food.”

In the absence of legislation, he noted that Nigerians need to be responsible about their eating habits. He advocated recourse to local foods rich in natural nutrients.

Local palm oil as the best alternative

Nutritionist Maggie Michalczyk, said palm oil has some health benefits. “Some studies have shown that palm oil reduces the risk factors for heart disease and aids in brain functioning. It is high in tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E that acts like antioxidants, which can slow the progression of dementia and lower stroke risk.

In terms of flavor, palm oil gives food a creamier, fattier mouth feels. Palm oil is also versatile. “It can be processed and blended to produce a vast range of products with different characteristics,” said Michalczyk.

Palm oil is also used for preventing Vitamin A deficiency, cancer, brain disease, and treating malaria, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cyanide poisoning. Palm oil is used for weight loss and increases the body’s metabolism. It improves skin and hair health. On top of these benefits, palm oil is trans fat free.

Nigerians and indeed, West Africans, have a better alternative in locally produced palm oil, which has proven to be a ‘wonder oil’ for centuries.

Jaiyeola Joseph, a palm oil advocate and founder of the Nation Builders Network (NBN), advised the Nigerian government to explore the health and commercial benefits of locally produced palm oil, stressing that it is a multi-billion dollar industry from which Singapore and Malaysia are recording immense profits.

He said, “With good plans, we can reclaim our place in the industry to drive development, economic growth and employment.”

Imported oil as an economic plague

Patricia Thomson, a palm oil merchant in Lagos, said the influx of inferior vegetable oil into Nigeria has killed palm oil trade in Nigeria. “With over 200 million people, Nigeria is a target for western industrialist who would spend millions of dollars to discredit palm oil and promote its own product. The unchecked influx has eroded the sales of palm oil to the advantage of cheaper, readily available foreign but toxic brands.”

Israel Abu, a palm tree specialist in Ogun State, urged government to stop the importation of vegetable oil in order to save the jobs of millions of Nigerians that make a living from palm oil produce.

He said, “I used to work with Okomu Palm Oil Company but due to revenue loss, some of us were laid off. Nigerian oil palm is better than the foreign ones because it is devoid of chemicals. We even import palm oil from Ghana, where it is adulterated to make it reddish and appealing.”

In 2019, Okomu Oil– Nigeria’s second-largest palm oil producer suffered abysmal drop in patronage affecting its production capacity and leading to job loss. The company reported its weakest first-quarter performance since 2014. The poor performance was due to weaker palm oil prices and consumer demand as well as surge in lower priced CPO into the country.

Okomu’s first-quarter financial statement shows that revenue declined by 42.5 percent to N4.2 billion in Q1 2019 from N7.3 billion in same period in 2018. Similarly, profit after tax declined sharply by 71 percent to N1 billion in Q1 2019 from N3.5 billion in Q1 2018.

Adultrated Palm Oil

The importation of palm oil and vegetable oil has created another kind of problem for consumers.

Nutritionist Mosope Oyerinde explained, “There is a widespread speculation that palm oil is adulterated by processors to maximize profit. The quality of palm oil is generally determined by the percentage of Free Fatty Acid (FFA) and moisture, saponification value and peroxide value.

Products commonly used in adulterating palm oil includes carrot, dye, potash, pawpaw etc.

“These compounds have not undergone stringent studies and the level of threat they may pose to human health when consumed is not well established.

Unfortunately, the adulteration practice is normally done without considering its possible effect on the quality of palm oil and the health of consumers.

“Otu (2013), reported that crude palm oil can be adulterated with natural potash, also called lake salt and locally called ‘kaun’ in Yoruba, ‘akanwu’ in Igbo and ‘kanwa’ in Hausa. It is a mineral consisting of chlorides, sulphates and carbonates of Sodium, Calcium and Potassium, as well as some micronutrients. It is used as an adulterant in palm oil because it acts as an emulsifying agent between oil and water, increasing the volume and changing its characteristic orange-red colour to yellowish-red.

“Otu (2013) also reported that the aqueous extract of sorghum plant (Sorghum bicolor) produces a red dye. The dye extracted is commonly used in colouring leather, clothes, and for cosmetics. Red dye acts as an emulsifying agent.

Ekop et al (2007) reported the use of carrot, pawpaw, lime and red dye on the adulteration of palm oil amongst producers. This is because of their periodic abundance and low cost.

“Nwachoko and Fortune (2019); Oparaocha et al (2019) reported the use of azo-dyes in the adulteration of palm oil. Azo dyes are used in food industries as food additives. They are classified as Sudan I, II, III and IV. These dyes have different colours and are used for different purposes. The most commonly used in adulterating palm oil is Sudan III dye. It has a high solubility in palm oil and has been labelled carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It is not permitted to be used in food, but because this dye has a distinct colour and low cost, it has been intentionally used to adulterate palm oil to enhance its colour.”

The effect of adulteration of crude palm oil on consumer, Oyerinde said is grave.

“It could lead to loss of quality and nutritive properties, loss of organoleptic attributes and overall degradation of the oil and cancer.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, NHF boss Dr Akinroye advised that Nigerians owe it to themselves to kick trans fat industrialists out of business. “It is important that we take personal responsibility for our health. If we are aware of what we buy and eat, we would have solved the problem by buying only products that are labelled. If you are not buying their poison, they will not bring it in. Eating right is the key.

Source: The Nation

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