Eliminate trans fats, they are bad for Kenyans

WHO estimates that every year, intake of these fats leads to more than 500,000 deaths through heart diseases

In Summary

•Kenya has a National policy commitment to eliminate TFAs. Kenya has the opportunity to lead East Africa on this important public health issue by restricting trans fat to 2% of total fats in all foods.

•The current iTFA regulations in Kenya were a good attempt by the government to provide guidelines for trans fatty acids. 

Most roadside chapatis and chips 'mwitu', are prepared using unhealthy trans fats.
RISK: Most roadside chapatis and chips 'mwitu', are prepared using unhealthy trans fats.
Image: FILE

According to the Global Burden of Disease data, there were approximately 657 trans fatty acids related cardiovascular disease (CVD) deaths in Kenya in 2019.

High trans fats intake is a risk factor of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It also increases the risk of death from any cause by 34 per cent, coronary heart disease deaths by 28 per cent, and coronary heart disease by 21 per cent.

Trans fats increase low-density lipoprotein (“bad”) cholesterol levels while lowering high-density lipoprotein (“good”) cholesterol levels. Trans fats have no known health benefits. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every year, trans fats intake leads to more than 500,000 deaths from people with CVDs.

Trans fats, otherwise known as trans-fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids that come from either natural (from ruminants- cows and sheep) or industrial sources.

Industrially produced trans fats (iTFAs) are formed in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil converting the liquid into a solid, resulting in “partially hydrogenated” oil (PHO). iTFAs are mostly used to prolong the shelf life of products, are primarily used for deep frying and as an ingredient in baked foods.

WHO launched the REPLACE action package in 2018 to help governments eliminate iTFAs from their nations’ food supplies, and replace these harmful compounds with healthier oils and fats. Following the first national policy to eliminate industrially produced TFAs in Denmark in 2003, a growing number of countries have taken policy action to protect their citizens from TFAs.

During the past 15 years, 28 countries have implemented mandatory TFA limits, covering 2.4 billion people (31%) across the globe. As well, a growing number of regional regulations are in place that aim to eliminate industrially produced TFA, thus the need for regional measures in the East African Community.

Replacing trans fats with healthier oils/fats in the food supply is a low-cost way for governments to save the lives of their citizens. Experiences in several countries demonstrate that iTFAs can be replaced by healthier oils. WHO recommends trans fats elimination as a cost-effective intervention for low- and middle- income countries. Modelling from the United Kingdom found a five-year net savings in healthcare costs.

Governments can eliminate the cause of 7% of CVDs globally with a comparatively low-cost investment. Some of the ways it can ensure smooth elimination of TFAs include; offering education and technical assistance; subsidies e.g. removing subsidies on PHOs and tropical oils high in saturated fatty acids; introducing agricultural policies to reduce cost and increase the availability of healthy oil alternatives; and funding for innovation research on healthy replacement oils. Argentina is a good example of how the government has enabled supply of healthy oils/fats alternatives.

Including trans fat content on packaged food nutrition labels allows monitoring of compliance with mandatory trans fat limits. Coupled with consumer education and advocacy, labelling can lead to reformulation.

However, it is unlikely to lead to the full elimination of trans fat in the food supply. While including trans fat levels on labels is important, health claims such as “trans fat free” should not be allowed unless other specific food criteria are met.

"Elimination of iTFAs will make our food healthier, reduce disability and premature death from noncommunicable diseases."
DAISY LENJO: "Elimination of iTFAs will make our food healthier, reduce disability and premature death from noncommunicable diseases."

According to WHO (2018), the effectiveness of labelling regulations may be limited in low and middle- income countries, where the main source of trans fats is often food purchased from street vendors rather than packaged food.

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

Elimination of iTFAs will make our food healthier, reduce disability and premature death from noncommunicable diseases, one of the health targets of the SDGs. It will also help to create a food environment that promotes healthy diets and achieves the global nutrition and diet-related global noncommunicable disease targets endorsed by the World Health Assembly and committed to at the 2nd International Conference on Nutrition and the Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016 - 2025).

The African Region has the fewest number of countries with mandatory TFA limits in place. South Africa has had best-practice mandatory TFA limits in foods, oils and fats since 2011.

Kenya has a National policy commitment to eliminate TFAs. Kenya has the opportunity to lead East Africa on this important public health issue by restricting trans fat to 2% of total fats in all foods. The current iTFA regulations in Kenya were a good attempt by the government to provide guidelines for trans fatty acids.

However, there is need to enact and implement one of the WHO recommended best practice-policy options to limit iTFA at 2% of the total fat content in all foods; or ban partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) in all foods.

Experiences in several countries demonstrate that mandatory approaches are more effective at reducing trans fats in the food supply and in the population. This is thus an issue for our government to give serious consideration to.

It would if approached and implemented correctly, impact positively on our health and well-being, finances and workforce to name but a few.

Daisy Lenjo is a nutritionist at the International Institute for Legislative Affairs.