Since the advocacy to eliminate trans fatty acids (TFAs) from the food supply system in Nigeria began, many Nigerians have actually expressed confusion over the issue, particularly the sources of trans fatty acids. In a bid to douse this confusion, a family physician and president Medical Initiative for Africa, Dr. Taiwo Fasoranti has provided explanation.
For a better understanding of what dietary fats are, Fasoranti described them as the most concentrated form of food energy. Fats that are liquid at room temperature are called oils, while fats that are firm at room temperature are called solids. According to him, there are two types of dietary fats: saturated and unsaturated. The difference between the two depends on the amount of hydrogen atoms that surround the fatty acid structure, called “saturation.” Saturated fatty acids are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms and are typically solid, while unsaturated fatty acids are not “saturated” with them and are typically liquid.
After establishing what dietary fats are, he went forward to explain what trans fatty acids are. In his words, “Trans fat, or trans-fatty acids, are unsaturated fatty acids that come from either natural or industrial sources. Naturally-occurring trans fat come from ruminants (cows and sheep). Industrially-produced trans fats are formed in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil converting the liquid into a solid, resulting in “partially hydrogenated” oil (PHO).
Speaking on the hydrogenation process, he referred to it as “a chemical process that adds hydrogen to the unsaturated bonds. In this way, an unsaturated fat can be turned into a saturated fat and increase its melting point (List and King, 2006). For edible purposes and for commercial use, we produce solid fats, (such as margarines) which contain hydrogenated (hardened) oils as their major ingredients. This is as a result of successfully converting low-melting unsaturated fatty acids and glycerides to higher-melting saturated products.
Fasoranti further explained that partially hydrogenated oils are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil (hydrogenation process) to increase shelf-life and flavour stability of foods. Partial hydrogenation results in the addition of hydrogen atoms at some of the empty positions, with a corresponding reduction in the number of double bonds.
Typical commercial hydrogenation is partial to obtain a malleable mixture of fats that is solid at room temperature, but melts during baking, or consumption. In a nutshell, it makes it edible, he added.
For the sources of trans fatty acids, Fasoranti said trans fatty acids come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils which are found in margarine’s, shortenings, cakes, pies and cookies (especially with frosting), candies (especially with creamy fillings), crackers, snack foods, microwave popcorn (buttered and flavored varieties), frozen pizzas, frozen biscuits, pastries, muffins, doughnuts (especially frosted or cream-filled), breaded and fried chicken and fish, fried fast foods.
Also, the practice of recycling oils for frying also leads to trans fatty acids. He however added that there are alternatives to the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable fats in our diets. One of the healthiest alternatives to using saturated or partially hydrogenated fats is the use of natural unsaturated liquid vegetable oils such as olive, canola, corn, or soy oils. They contain high levels of monounsaturated Fats, he pointed out, saying they are not subjected to the harmful processing steps we see in TFAs. Olive oil especially extra virgin, according to him, is among the least processed cooking oils on the shelves. This means it retains the most antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Speaking on the responsible public health response to the consumption of trans fatty acids, he contended that public health awareness on the adverse effects of trans fatty acids was important. The use of food labels whereby consumers have a choice to read labels and decide if they want to use a product is a good step as well, he noted, adding “I support governments and regulating agencies’ efforts at reducing the consumption. Rigorous public health awareness programmes at primary, secondary and tertiary health centres should be encouraged’’.
He further advised individuals to be cautious and avoid to the barest minimum the consumption of TFAs in their diets. It is established that such TFAs have health hazards. He encouraged the use of alternatives as elaborated earlier as well as maintaining good cooking habits.