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How artificial trans-fats ruin the health of Kenya

Confronted with the health risks, the obvious question is what to do about it

In Summary

•Trans fat increases your "bad" cholesterol and decreases your "good" cholesterol. This may cause coronary artery disease.

• There is need for policy and legislation specifically addressing the production, management, use and limit of Trans Fats in Kenya.

Some of the foods that still contain artificial trans-fats.
Some of the foods that still contain artificial trans-fats.

Every day, children unknowingly consume an unsafe ingredient, in the food they eat. Trans fatty acids (TFAs) intake has been identified as a health hazard worldwide for both children and adults.

Let us break this down; TFAs are basically parts of fat molecules found naturally in small amounts in certain meat, dairy, plant-based products. There are generally two types of trans fats/fatty acids. Saturated and unsaturated.

Please bear with the chemistry for a keener understanding. Fatty acids are composed of a carbon backbone bonded to hydrogen atoms. Importantly, there are available spaces in the fatty acid chain for more hydrogen atoms to bond to the carbon skeleton

If a fatty acid chain does not have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to its carbon skeleton, then it's unsaturated, meaning it's not full. Unsaturated fats are usually plant-based, and are typically liquid oils at room temperature. Examples of foods containing unsaturated fats are olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, most nuts, fish and avocados.

However, if the fatty acid has the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon, then its saturated i.e. it's full. Red meat, whole milk, other dairy products, cheese and coconut oil, are examples of saturated fat sources. They're more often than not solid at room temperature. These are typically the unhealthy fats.

Now how does this relate to trans fats? Remember those available spaces in the fatty acid chain? In the early 1900s, scientists realised they could add hydrogen atoms to fill up most of the spaces on an unsaturated fatty acid. This process was called hydrogenation. Through it they were able to create a solid, more saturated fat (we know what this is now) that looked like butter and lard but was much cheaper.

This man-made fat is what we refer to as trans fats today. It had a much longer shelf-life than the natural fats; a symphony to companies that produced the masses of cookies, crackers, doughnuts and fried foods basically the majority of processed foods. They jumped at the chance to use this product in order to save money and increase shelf life of their products. This is where find ourselves today.

Artificially produced trans-fats commonly referred to as partially hydrogenated oils, have now flooded the processed foods market. Vegetable oils have also been hydrogenated and are now found in baked foods such as cakes, cookies and pies, shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough such as biscuits and rolls, fried foods including fries/chips, doughnuts and fried chicken, non-dairy coffee creamer, stick margarine.

Therefore, whether you’re purchasing these products at a kiosk, supermarket or restaurant, if they bear the indication "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils on an ingredient list or nutrition tag, the foods contain trans fats.

What are the health risks involved one might ask. Trans fatty acids have a detrimental effect on our cholesterol levels. Generally, there are two main types of cholesterol, High-density lipoprotein (HDL) or "good cholesterol" and Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad cholesterol".

Good cholesterol picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver while bad cholesterol builds up in the walls of our arteries, making them hard and narrow increasing the pressure on the heart to pump blood. 

Trans fat increases your "bad" cholesterol and decreases your "good" cholesterol. This may cause coronary artery disease. If the fatty deposits within your arteries tear or rupture, a blood clot may form and block blood flow to a part of the heart, causing a heart attack; or to a part of your brain, causing a stroke. Consequently, doctors worry about added trans fats as it elevates the risk of heart attack, stroke. It is also attributed to insulin resistance which increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (Havard Medical School/Havard health publishing)

Research has shown a direct connection of TFAs with cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer, shortening of pregnancy period, risks of preeclampsia, disorders of nervous system and vision in infants, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergies per to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health Consumption and other sources.

These risks are especially ominous to the younger generation as they are bred into a lifestyle of excess consumption of TFA-laden products. While the non-communicable diseases associated with this phenomenon might not manifest themselves in the present, they are most likely to emerge among this generation in later years at a high frequency and with greater intensity than what is witnessed today.

WHO'S PROPOSAL

It proposes a review of the trans fats sources, push for replacement with healthier oils, legislation with regard to trends in trans fats in the food supply industry, spreading awareness among stakeholders, policy makers and consumers and enforcement of regulations.

Confronted with the health risks, the obvious question is what to do about it. Eliminating trans fats is key to protecting health and saving the lives of children. In 2003, the World Health Organization(WHO) recommended that trans fats make up no more than 0.9% of a person's diet in 2003.

In 2018, the WHO launched the REPLACE campaign which seeks to inform a clear roadmap for the elimination of trans fats globally. This is an effort to limit or ban Trans Fat intake to less than 1% of dietary energy and calls upon the member states to adopt mechanisms of achieving a Trans Fats free globe by the year 2023. It proposes a review of the trans fats sources, push for replacement with healthier oils, legislation with regard to trends in trans fats in the food supply industry, spreading awareness among stakeholders, policy makers and consumers and enforcement of regulations.

There are various alternatives which may be considered. These include modification of the hydrogenation process to drastically reduce or eliminate the TFAs; interesterification where the melting and crystallizing behavior of the fat is modified, to produce fats with the desirable physical properties of fatty acids but without TFA or Use of Trait-enhanced oils which are oils are derived through traditional plant breeding or biotechnological methods. All of these trait-enhanced oils have good oxidative stability making them suitable for frying, spraying, and some bakery applications.

While various nations have in the recent past imposed limits of TFAs in processed foods and reviewed regulations on labelling of food products containing TFAs, Kenya is yet to follow suit.

KENYA'S POSITION

The Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances (General Regulations) of 1978 (Cap. 254) and subsequent amendments thereto provides for formulation of regulations requesting for information, statement or declaration to be put on the labels of processed food products, there are no directions specific to Trans Fats Foods. There is proposed, Kenya Food and Drugs Authority Bill, 2019 which seeks to establish a Food and Drugs Authority but there is no designation of any function to manage and regulate TFAs.

Economic incentives and penalties including subsidies and/or taxes that encourage production and manufacture healthy food products for the citizenry should be instituted. There is need for policy and legislation specifically addressing the production, management, use and limit of Trans Fats in our jurisdiction.

Decreasing trans fats in food restaurants and food manufacturing companies and switching to healthier alternatives would one, not affect taste of food and secondly, would save the lives of many children,make food systems healthier for future generations, including by eliminating industrially-produced trans fats.

In parting, let us consider this; for every 2% of calories from trans fats consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%. What is the percentage of calories in your diet areTrans Fats?

Philip Musamia & Rose Nabwire work for the International Institute for Legislative Affairs