A group of civil society organisations (CSOs) has called on the Nigerian government to formulate a policy towards the elimination of trans-fatty acids (TFAs) from the food supply in the country.
The call was made on Tuesday during a conference on “Trans fat and Cardiovascular Disease: Protecting the Health of the Populace through TFA Regulation.”
Some of the groups present were the Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), Nigeria Heart Foundation (NHF), and others.
Trans-fatty acids are unhealthy fats that come in both artificial and natural forms. Artificial trans fats are formed through an industrial process called hydrogenation, in which companies add hydrogen to vegetable oil and other products.
Foods containing trans fats are artery-clogging and increase cholesterol levels in humans, which experts claim cause high risk of cardiovascular disease.
TFAs are said to be common in baked goods, fries, pre-packaged foods, and cooking oils. Butter, salmon, egg yolks and cows’ milk are also natural sources of trans fat.
To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocated the elimination of TFAs in countries and released a guide called ‘REPLACE’ for governments to follow.
Why Nigeria needs to eliminate trans-fat
Speaking at the conference, Joy Amafah, the Nigeria Coordinator for GHAI said cardiovascular deaths are one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide and that industrially produced trans-fat (iTFA) is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.
According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) Global Burden of Disease data (GBD) Result Tool, Nigeria recorded approximately 854,000 deaths in 2019. Of the figure, approximately 137,000 deaths were said to be attributed to cardiovascular diseases and 3,229 attributed to TFA-related cardiovascular deaths.
“It is clear that TFA elimination is important to help curb preventable deaths in Nigeria,” she said.
Ms Amafah urged the Nigerian government to take clues from West African countries that have begun the process towards trans fat elimination.
“Nigeria as a Leader in West Africa has the golden opportunity to be an example and reinforce this status by advancing a WHO “best buy” measure for protecting health, making populations more productive, and saving on health care costs through iTFA elimination,” she said.
Giving a presentation on trans-fat in Nigeria and efforts by the government to eliminate the dangerous fat, Jerome Mafeni, the Technical Adviser for TFA-free Nigeria Campaign, NHED, said the government is yet to establish a monitoring system for TFA in foods or human consumption.
He said although the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) drafted the Fats and Oils Regulations of 2014, with an update in 2020, it is still awaiting final approvals and gazetting.
“These updated regulations address issues of iTFAs and the use of PHOs in oils, fats, and foods. It prescribes allowable limits for TFAs in food products that meet acceptable global standards. There has, however, been an extensive delay since the completion of technical drafting for these approvals to be obtained. These approvals must be prioritized so that the process of regulations, ” Mr Mafeni said.
Mr Mafeni explained that the vast majority of TFAs are produced industrially through hydrogenation and that the Nigerian government must prioritise regulations towards the elimination of TFAs, and their replacement with healthy and unsaturated fats.
“TFAs are a significant contributor to cardiovascular diseases (CVD) worldwide, estimated to contribute to over half a million deaths every year. iTFAs have no known health benefits and can readily and safely be replaced in foods without impacting their consistency and taste,” he said.
Mr Mafeni added that lack of awareness that TFAs are a significant public health challenge; lack of capacity of small and medium food producers to replace TFAs; and lack of replacement fats and technology are the challenges facing iTFA regulations.
Akinbode Oluwafemi, the Executive Director of CAPPA said Nigeria has not sat by idly in the global campaign to eliminate trans-fat in foods.
“One of the most far-reaching efforts to ensure our foods are wholesome and meet the standard the WHO recommends is the draft “Fat and Oils Regulations 2019” and the “Pre-Packaged, Ice and Labelling Regulations of 2019” that the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) came up with in 2019.
“It is expected that this draft regulation will be given the much-needed consent by NAFDAC in no distant time,” he said.
Mr Oluwafemi said to ensure that Nigeria does not go below the standard recommended by the WHO in trans fats elimination, a coalition of non-governmental organisations under the #TransFatfreeNigeria Campaign was initiated.
He said through the #TransFatfreeNigeria Campaign, awareness on the dangers of trans fat will be created and pressure mounted on the government for the elimination of TFAs in Nigeria.