Understanding What Really Is Trans-Fat

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Cardiovascular disease is the number one leading cause of death in the whole world, claiming an estimated 17.9 million lives each year. Four out of five cardiovascular deaths are due to heart attacks and strokes, and the leading cause of coronary heart disease is the consumption of trans-fats.  This is a valid quote: ‘This man-made fat was developed to protect us against butter, but it turns out, it acts like butter inside our bodies’.

Trans fats
Trans fats

The big question is: ‘What exactly are industrially-made trans-fats’? How are they made? What is the science behind it? What kind of food contains trans-fat? How bad are they, really? And which organizations have taken it upon themselves to make sure trans-fat is eliminated from our food?  The following paragraphs are going to buttress this point for us.

What exactly are industrially made trans-fat?

Trans-fat or properly called, Trans Fatty Acids are formed when oil manufacturers decide to turn liquid oil to solid oil or when cooks keep using refined oil to cook repeatedly. For manufacturers, this creates solid thick, hard margarine, and they create this process via hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is simply a process by which vegetable oils are converted to solid fats simply by adding hydrogen atoms. So why hydrogenate? Partial hydrogenation changes a fat’s molecular structure (raising its melting point and reducing rancidity) but this process also results in a proportion of the changed fat becoming trans-fat.

Rancidity is a term that describes off flavors and aromas caused by short fatty acid chains, for example, the bad aroma given off by some oils. Simply put, hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. The shelf life of a product is how long the product can last.

Trans-fatty acids are found naturally in small quantities in some foods including beef, pork, lamb, butter, and milk, but most trans-fatty acids in the diet come from hydrogenated foods. To put this into proper perspective, all-natural fats and oils are a combination of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids. Trans-fatty acids (TFAs) are unsaturated fatty acids that contain at least one double bond in the trans configuration. Trans fatty acids are formed during industrial partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil, a process widely commercialized to produce solid fats.

The TFA content of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVO) depends on the variables of the hydrogenation process, i.e. time, catalyst, temperature, and hydrogen pressure; the types and proportions of oils and composition of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and poly unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Trans-fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans-fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The next question that could pop out is, are all fats bad?

Not at all. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats – found mainly in canola, olive, and peanut oils can result in less bad cholesterol (LDL-low density lipoprotein) and more good cholesterol (HDL-high density lipoprotein) production in the body, that’s to say, we still have some fats that are good for your health. A US Boston-based community nutritionist Dana Greene once advised ‘we should limit our daily fat intake to 30 per cent or less of our daily calories. Choose heart-healthy fats including nuts, avocado, peanut butter, and trans-fat-free margarines.”

What kinds of food contain trans-fat?

You won’t like this but trans-fats can be found in many foods – including fried foods like doughnuts, and baked foods including cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizza (very low trans-fat is seen in fresh pizza), cookies, crackers, and stick margarines and other spreads. You can determine the amount of trans-fats in a particular packaged food by looking at the ‘Nutrition Facts’ panel.

However, products can be listed as “0 grams of trans fats” if they contain 0 grams to less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving. You can also spot trans-fats by reading ingredient lists and looking for the ingredients referred to as “partially hydrogenated oils.”

Another source of trans-fat in our food is the recurring or continuous usage of home oil. This implies the usage of a particular oil over and over again to minimize cost. This increases the level of trans-fat in that oil thereby making it dangerous for your health.

In Nigeria, advocacy groups such as Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) is championing the Trans-Fat Free Nigeria Campaign to educate the masses on what trans-fat is and how to avoid it in the food we eat. CAPPA works with the Network for Health Equity and Development to form a coalition with other civil society organizations to pressure the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to pass effective regulations for manufacturers to produce margarines and other processed foods with minimal or no trans-fat in line with the WHO REPLACE package.

The acronym is broken down into the following:

•        Review dietary sources of industrially produced trans-fat and the landscape for required policy change.

•        Promote the replacement of industrially produced trans-fat with healthier fats and oils.

•        Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially produced trans-fat.

•        Assess and monitor trans-fat content in the food supply and changes in trans-fat consumption in the population.

•        Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans-fat among policymakers, producers, suppliers, and the public.

•        Enforce compliance with policies and regulations.

The REPLACE package is a global document and pathway to ensure that countries of the world become free from the dangers of trans-fat. The campaign needs everyone to rally round CAPPA, NHED and other stakeholders working with NAFDAC to ensure that a #TransfatFreeNigeria is actualized.

Nigeria is on the right track towards joining other countries that have put in place regulations and policies towards the elimination of trans-fatty acids in food. The country’s efforts towards the approval of the ‘Fats and Oil Regulations 2019’ and the ‘Pre-Packaged Food, Water and Ice (Labelling) Regulations 2019,’ although slow, is very much on course. When passed into law, the first regulation will limit trans-fat to 2g per 100g of total fat in all fats, oils, and foods while the later will ensure proper labelling of food products in Nigeria in the context of industrially produced TFAs.

A key focus of the #TransfatfreeNigeria campaign is the advocacy for this much needed regulation. It is hoped that Nigeria will have the much-needed regulation soon.

Akande Boluwatife
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