Trans Fat: A Worry Plaguing The Everyday Nigerian Woman

In Breaking News, Health, National News

By Abenmire Adi

Sights of women selling fried yam, potatoes, fish and of course the popular akara and bread, simply referred to as ‘A and B’ or modernized to ‘African burger,’ is a common sight in communities around Nigeria.

In areas where public schools are situated, you can be sure of some puff-puff and buns too.

Anita Paul, a woman in her late 30s, sells fried foods at Atamunu Street in Calabar, in Nigeria’s south-south state, Cross River. She tells me that she has been in this trade since she was a child and has learnt all the tricks of the business.

Prominent among them is knowing from where to get the vegetable oil which she uses and how to maximise its usage by reusing it.

It has been like this since 2004 when her mother was in charge, she says with a loud laugh, “I’m the CEO now, abi?,” [sic] she quipped.

We had barely talked for 10 minutes when the queue started to grow around her stall.

Women with babies strapped to their backs and children hurriedly following behind, stopped by to buy some of the fried food.

Pupils hurrying off to Government Secondary School in Uwanse, next door, also stopped to patronise her.

From the familiarity of the greetings and pleasantries she exchanges with them, you could tell those who regularly purchase her oil laden akara and the margarine laden bread to go with it.

There is an infirmary situated not too far from Paul’s stall. Most workers at the health facility have made eating her tasty akara and bread a daily routine.

A middle-aged Iquo, dressed in a long grey-black dress and a scarf wrapped carelessly around her head, has to leave home very early to put the infirmary in order before the senior administrative staff arrive. Having breakfast at Paul’s is routine.

Anita Paul reveals that she makes enough money to pay school fees for her children as well as meet other daily needs through her business because she has learnt how to make do with what is available. This, according to her, is “managing oil well by repeating its use.”

She says vegetable oil (also called groundnut oil), is a major ingredient in her line of business.

About three litres of oil is enough for her morning cooking and she only needs to keep topping it up. She never discards her oil after, no matter how many uses or how blackened it becomes from the multiple use. There is a special container into which she pours it after each daily use.

From her explanation, it is possible that a particular portion of oil may be used for well over a month.

Reuse of oils for frying is a norm with food sellers like Anita Paul and even in many homes across Nigeria. It is considered a waste to simply throw out oil because it has been used more than three times, for example.

Daniel Bassey who sells yam, potato chips and other small chops in a stall along Atimbo, in another part of Calabar, considers it weird to do otherwise. He says, “If you no economize, how you go survive for this our Nigeria?” [sic]

While many Nigerians are running their homes and businesses on shoestring budgets, Dr. Jerome Mafeni, Technical Adviser on the Trans Fat Free Nigeria campaign explained that, the constant reuse of oil is one way it becomes trans fat.

He said this during a February 2021 training for journalists in Lagos.

Mafeni said, “the reuse of oils is one way of hydrogenating them and this poses a health risk to those who consume such oils.”

Some of the health risks he is referring to include cardiovascular diseases which the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises as a leading silent killer, globally.

A 2014 report by Non-Communicable Disease Alliance says, “it is often referred to as the “silent killer” as many people are not aware they have it, yet it causes 9.4 million deaths each year including 51% of deaths due to strokes and 45% of deaths due to coronary heart disease.”

Regardless, the majority of Nigerians like Paul, Iquo and Bassey, are unaware of this risk and how their habits are influencing it.

Peggy Eki is a working-class mum of three children who are all below age 10. Part of her daily routine includes making breakfast, preparing the children for school among others, before leaving home at about 8am.

“Quick fix meals like bread and margarine have been a saviour,” she says.

At the close of school, she stops at a nearby eatery to purchase snacks for her children, so that they can conveniently join her at work until she closes.

A few times, she stops to pay attention to labels when purchasing groceries, however, most times she does not. Something many Nigerians do not bother about and for those who do, with some level of scepticism.

Like many Nigerians, Eki says, “I pay more attention to price tags and expiry dates than I do to nutrition facts labels.”

This is a pattern similar to those of a few other mothers, whose responsibility it is to cook for their families. From working class mums to full time housewives and petty traders involved in the sale of fried food and other junk food, food shortenings are often a part of their daily meals.

A typical example is Gift Akpan who bakes.

She says, “I sell at least 20, 10-inch pans of cakes and above to between 15 and 20 persons every month. I use at atleast 250 grams of margarine for every six inch cake I make.”

This means 50 grams of margarine per serving if five persons consume this cake in equal proportions.

Dr. Godwin Eneji of the Department of Biochemistry, University of Calabar is an expert in lipids and toxicological biochemistry. He says industrial trans fat can be found in junk foods, food shortenings and fried foods. This is depending on the level of thermoxidation of oils used in frying them. Thermoxidized oils are oils subjected to extreme heat.

He says, “If the roadside vendor uses her oil over and over again, then there is a tendency for trans fatty acids to be incorporated into that food.”

He adds that, trans fats are formed through the process of hydrogenation and this occurs normally in the food industry during the production of margarines and other shortenings.

“When they are subjected to repeated heating, they undergo conversion into trans fatty acids. That is why we advise against bleaching and the repeated use of oils,” he says.

An October 2011 review of trans fats sources, health risks and alternative approach by the Journal of Food Science and Technology, says trans fatty acids when consumed in appreciable amounts, have the tendency to increase the secretion of Low Density Lipo (LDL) proteins implicated in obesity and other cardiovascular diseases.

Increased LDL “bad” cholesterol and reduced HDL (High Density Lipo) “good” cholesterol, has a tendency to clog the arteries. This can trigger some heart conditions and cause metabolic disorders.

A 2020 report by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) says trans fat intake is responsible for approximately 500, 000 premature deaths from coronary heart disease each year around the world.

It adds that an extensive body of evidence has demonstrated the negative metabolic effects of Trans Fatty Acids (TFA), as well as the association between total Trans Fatty Acids intake in Coronary Heart Disease.

The report says, high TFA intake significantly increases the risk of death from any cause by 34%, the risk of Coronary Heart Disease death by 28%, and the risk of Coronary Heart Disease occurrence by 21%. Non significant increases of 7 % for ischemic stroke and 10% for diabetes were also noted.

With these worrisome statistics, it is safe to say that Peggy and Iquo, like many others including 42-year-old Ini-Obong Ita, spend hard earned money to buy consumables that could send them to an early grave.

For Ita, there is always a huge battle with her husband before adequate money is provided for feeding. While carefully arranging wraps of moin-moin into a pot in the open kitchen which she shares with four other tenants. Ita says that she constantly inflates prices of the children’s school fees to enable her to save money to buy foodstuff.

With this money, she buys unbranded groundnut oil, palm oil, grains and other food items in bulk. According to a 2018 article on healthline.com, some of such cooking oils Ita buys may contain trans fat.

Her neighbour, Emem Okon, is a member of a daily contribution group where her money is saved up for the purpose of purchasing food items quarterly. At the end of every quarter, she pays a visit to her mother in Ekori, Yakurr Local Government Area in the Northern part of Cross River State. She returns with gallons of oil purchased from the trip.

She says transporting food items from Ekori to Calabar is a lot of work, from unending haggling of prices with commercial bus drivers to long hours on bad roads, but it is  totally worth it at the end of the day.

The transportation costs between ₦1,200 and ₦1,500 and she pays at least another ₦500 for the oils otherwise the drivers will leave them behind. Thus, an additional third of her transport fare is expended on ferrying her oil.

Both women, with very limited information on what to consume or not, are perhaps among many other people spending hard earned money on consumables that could lead to unpalatable consequences.

According to Dr. Eneji, the food industry has not eliminated trans fat from their food. This is unlike other countries that have come up with regulations which have also been passed into law.

He adds that there is an urgent need for regulation on permissible levels of trans fat contents in food in Nigeria because, putting this out will guide consumers in making informed food choices.

In the same vein, Nutritionist and founder of CocoBong Foods, Utah Bassey stresses that eating trans fats also promotes inflammation and increases the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Utah, who is also a health activist, says it reduces the normal health responsiveness of endothelial cells that line the blood vessel and is also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

According to her, it could be worse for women as findings link adipose stores of trans fats to post-menopausal breast cancer. Adipose tissues are made up of fat cells that have a fat reserve.

Also, women with elevated levels of trans fats have double the risk of developing breast cancer as compared with women with low levels. Breastcancer.org in a 2008 article said a study found that eating a lot of trans fats may increase breast cancer risk. This is as WebMD.com in 2007 says cutting trans fats from the diet may be especially important for women of childbearing age who want to have children.

“Eating these unhealthy fats has been strongly linked to an increased risk for heart  disease. Now, new research suggests they also increase a woman’s risk of infertility,” WebMD.com says.

It can be said to be a dire situation for women as nutrition researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, in the above study, found that women with ovulation-related fertility problems tended to eat more trans fats than fertile women.

They obtained just 2% of total calories from trans fats instead of healthier monounsaturated fats was associated with a doubled risk for this type of infertility.

In addition, each 2% increase in trans fat consumption as a replacement for carbohydrates, brought a 73% greater risk of ovulation-related infertility, after adjusting for other known and suspected infertility risk factors, according to the study.

Lead author Jorge E. Chavarro, MD, ScD, told WebMD in an interview, that the findings must be confirmed and added that women planning pregnancies should be especially vigilant to replace trans fats, just in case.

This is a call for caution to the likes of Eki and Paul as they fall within this category of women.

Raising more awareness for these women and others like them in the reproductive bracket on the dangers trans fat predisposes them to, Dr. Felix Archibong, a Consultant Family Physician at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), had something to say.

He says “the womb and breasts are two organs with so much blood supply and could be more affected by industrially produced trans fats even though any other organ of the body can be affected.”

He explains the transition saying, “when fats go into our system, they are majorly deposited into the bloodstream from the intestine and every blood passes through the heart. This means that the heart will start pumping blood against a narrow tube and this may lead to coronary heart disease. That is why you hear that people just slump and die.”

With Nigeria currently ranking as the poverty headquarters and the COVID-19 pandemic further compounding this, Mafeni urges Nigerians to be cautious about their consumption of trans fat.

He advises that, “rather than reuse the oils repeatedly to fry, cook with them. Make stew, sauces and other such foods with them and then use fresh ones after three times of using a previous portion.”

This is a new and very helpful knowledge for Eki who vows that, “I will have to do better going forward.”

Cardiovascular diseases are not the only risks women should watch out for.

Eneji adds that, “Industrial trans fat can also predispose people to diabetes. Some cancers have also been implicated, people with family history of heart disease, diabetics among others, should be careful with processed food and hydrogenated foods.”

Internationally, there are limits of about 0.5 grams, but these rules are not enforced around here, states Dr. Archibong.

He further advocates exclusive breastfeeding for children to curb their consumption of processed food and encouraged more vegetables and other organic foods for them.

Like Eneji, Archibong opines that regulatory agencies should come up with clear cut guidelines of actual listing of trans fat in food products.

They advocate that the nutritional fact panels should have all the information of the product content to enable consumers make informed decisions before purchase.

Also, regulation on permissible levels of trans fatty acids should be properly documented and the public should be adequately informed.

The World Health Organization, WHO, has set out an action package to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fat from the global food supply.

The Replace Action Package provides a strategic approach to eliminating industrially-produced trans fat from national food supplies, with the goal of global elimination by 2023.

The package comprises an overarching technical document that provides a rationale and framework for this integrated approach to trans fat elimination, along with six modules and additional web resources to facilitate implementation.

The review of the 2005 Fats and Oils Regulation by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) is a step by the Nigerian Government towards eliminating trans fat in Nigeria.

The recently reviewed and published draft of Fats and Oils Regulation, 2019 covers all foods containing fats and oils which are manufactured, exported, imported, advertised, sold, distributed and used in Nigeria. It clearly prohibits anyone from performing these actions where a product or food containing fats and oils is concerned unless such has been duly registered as prescribed in the regulation.

The regulation addressed a key factor which is the restriction of the amount of trans fat in foods intended for human consumption or assumed to be intended for human consumption to not more than 2 grams per 100 grams of fat or oil.

However, experts say it is still lacking in some key elements recommended in the WHO’s How-to guide in the “Legislate or Regulate” module for policy action.

A 2020 report on Thenationonline.ng, for example says, the regulation does not define “trans fat” or “trans fatty acids,” the element sought to be eliminated; neither does it address specifically or differentiate between industrially produced trans fat (derived from vegetables) or naturally occurring trans fat (ruminant animals). The definition of such important terms need to be present in the Regulation to leave no room for ambiguity.

It adds that a major challenge to the elimination of trans fat in Nigeria which ought to be clearly addressed in the regulation is the sale of unbranded cooking oils.

“The regulation lays emphasis on packaged products or food containing fat and oils but it does not clearly address unpackaged/unbranded cooking oils which are easily accessible to so many Nigerians,” it reads.

Specific provisions addressing this, strict implementation processes and appropriate sanctions ought to be in place to achieve the goal of eliminating trans fat in Nigeria.

In addition, while the regulations are a step in the right direction, it is still at the draft stage.

There is a call by stakeholders for NAFDAC to move it beyond this stage to ensure they become law for the sake of people like Anita, Peggy, Gift, Iquo and others like them, who are daily exposed to the hazards of industrially produced trans fats.

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