‘The Meanest Of All The Fats’
2020 is going to be remembered as the year when nutrition and food safety found a seat at the world’s top table. A year when, prodded by COVID-19, people woke up to the critical importance of safe food.
Food safety is directly linked to the success of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals like ending hunger, preventing diseases, promoting fair trade and improving sustainable agriculture. So when the United Nations launched the first World Food Safety Day on June 7 last year, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) declared that ‘If it is not safe, it is not food.’
This year, the day was marked amidst a global lockdown due to the pandemic, which also disrupted food supply and distribution in developing nations, leading to acute hunger and starvation in many regions.
Also Read| Trans Fats: The Devil Is In The Details
It is obvious that unsafe food impacts human health, particularly vulnerable sections like women and children and those with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like hypertension and heart disease. The number of deaths due to poor diet is estimated at 11.3 million each year, compared to 6.1 million due to tobacco smoke and 3.1 million for alcohol and drug use, says the WHO, which predicts that the worldwide number of deaths from NCDs will increase to 55 million annually by 2030 unless urgent steps are taken.
But what actually qualifies as unsafe food? Obviously undercooked food, or food containing dangerous viruses, bacteria or chemicals are on top of that list. But foods that contains excessive amounts of salt, sugar, preservatives or fats are equally unsafe.
“It’s important to keep an eye out for the meanest of all the fats - trans fats,” notes nutritionist Kavita Devgun. “According to WHO estimates, trans fat intake leads to more than 500,000 deaths of people from cardiovascular disease every year. So eliminating trans fats is key to protecting health and saving lives. Trans fats have a specific chemical structure, that our body finds hard to metabolize, so they sit in the fat tissues around the body and hinder our body’s working efficiency, so a food that contains trans fats can definitely be termed as unsafe for us,” she says. WHO figures show that TFA accounts for over half a million death every year globally. Over 75,000 of them are from India, making it the highest in the world.
Our modern lifestyle often forces us to indulge in packed, processed or tinned food, often despite knowing that they are unhealthy. Way back in the early 20th century, renowned English novelist George Orwell had predicted that “we may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun.” He was right.
The recently released Global Nutrition Report 2020 underlines the increasing demand for cheap and aggressively marketed ready-to-eat processed food in upper-middle and lower-middle income countries. All these foods are loaded with salt, sugar and trans fatty acids (TFA) or partially hydrogenated oils, used extensively by various industries to increase the shelf life of foods. There is significant evidence linking trans fats to coronary heart disease, increased blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and decreased levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Most processed foods, bakery items, ready to eat and fried foods, vanaspati, margarine, desi ghee, butter are all sources of Trans Fats.
As the COO of Consumer VOICE, Mr Ashim Sanyal, points out: "Contrary to common understanding, oils and fats are essential for our body. We get Trans Fats also through natural sources which are harmless. However industry produced chemical or hydrogenated Trans Fats cause irreparable harm to our cardiovascular system. This is the major cause of hypertension and other NCDs. WHO has recognised this health harm and introduced REPLACE scheme to eliminate Trans Fats by 2023. Health ministry and FSSAI has also recognised this but has failed to bring in required regulations to eliminate Trans Fats from the Indian food recipes. This is an alarm bell.”
In India, nearly 5.8 million people (WHO report, 2015) die from NCDs (heart and lung diseases, stroke, cancer and diabetes) every year. In other words, 1 in 4 Indians has a risk of dying from an NCD before they reach the age of 70.
According to Dr Eram S. Rao, Associate Professor & HOD, Dept of Food Technology, Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences, University of Delhi, “Indians consume a lot of snacks which are made from Vanaspati which is a rich source of trans fats. These fats are implicated as the leading cause of NCDs (Non- Communicable diseases) in the world. Scientific evidence suggests that every 2 percent of calorie intake that comes from trans fats, a person’s heart disease risk increases by an incredible 23 percent. Eliminating trans-fat from the global food supply by 2023 can save more than 10 million lives worldwide by reducing cardiovascular diseases. Further, it can prevent 500,000 premature deaths globally each year. Therefore, there is an urgent need to enforce mandatory labelling of TFA and SFA content on vanaspati packs in our country.”
Dr. Rajeev Gupta, Professor of Cardiology, GMC Bhopal, concurs. “Trans-fat consumption increases risk of heart disease by increasing low density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol and decreasing high density lipoprotein (HDL) or good cholesterol levels in our body. High trans-fat levels intake increases the risk of death and coronary artery disease. Trans-fat are unsaturated fatty acids that come from either natural or industrial sources. Trans-fat is not required for the human body. Saturated fats (SFA) and trans-fat should be substituted with Monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated Fat (PUFA) for prevention of Cardiovascular diseases.”
As per the Draft Notifications of FSSAI, limit of trans fats in the fats/oils should not exceed 3% by weight on and from 1st January 2021, and not more than 2% by weight on and from 1st January 2022. At present, WHO says various foods in India contain 6%-30% of trans fats, way beyond the recommended limit of 2%. Commonly consumed deep-fried savouries and sweets like samosas, gulab jamun, and jalebi that are prepared with vanaspati are reported to contain up to 50% of fat as TFA. As per a recent product testing conducted by Consumer VOICE, a whopping 92 per cent of Indian sweets, snacks and fast food items had TFA exceeding the prescribed limit. It is time that consumers are empowered with complete information on the dangers of TFA, and how much of is contained in the food that they are eating. More importantly, it is imperative that the FSSAI’s draft notifications on Trans Fats are promulgated and enforced as soon as possible.
Because safe food is not a privilege. It is a right.
(Paramjeet Singh holds a Masters Degree in Economics and is a professional researcher and a consultant. He is Director (Research) and a board member of Consumer Voice, New Delhi.
Nilanjana Bose is an experienced content specialist with a proven track record in a career that spans over 15 years. She currently divides her time as a Content Manager with Consumer Voice and supporting her son's passion for golf.)