Campaigners warn of delay in Nigeria’s trans fat ban

14 Apr 2021

Nigeria has committed to introducing a mandatory 2% trans fat limit in oils, fats and processed foods – but campaigners are sounding warning bells over delays in implementing the regulation.

Trans fatty acids are found naturally in very small amounts in foods such as meat and dairy products. However, industrially produced trans fats, which are made by partially hydrogenating oils, are harmful to cardiovascular health.

Campaigners warn of delay in Nigeria’s trans fat ban

A 2018 report by Persistence Market Research estimated the global market volume of PHOs to be around 13.6 million tonnes.
However, with the negative health impact now firmly established, many governments around the world have regulated to limit their use.

In 2020, the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) notified a draft policy to limits trans fat to 2% of the oil and fat content in all oils, fats and food products. In January last year, the public was invited to comment on the proposed regulation.

The WHO praised the Nigerian government for its quick turnaround in drafting a regulation just 18 months after announcing its intention to tackle the issue. The WHO welcomed the “encouraging timeline” demonstrated by Nigerian policymakers in a report, Countdown to 2023: Global Trans Fat Elimination 2020.

As of May 2020, 32 countries have implemented mandatory trans-fat limits, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, 14 countries – covering 589 million people or 8% of the global population – have implemented a best-practice policy that either virtually eliminates industrially produced trans fats or bans PHOs.

Since then, however, civil society groups in Nigeria have sounded warning bells over delays in enforcing the regulation.

Adie Vanessa Offiong, program manager at non-profit organization Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) told The Ingredients Network it was “not able to explain the delay” in the approval of the regulations after more than a year of input from the public.

Asked how the Nigerian food industry had reacted to the proposed regulation, she said: “At the moment one cannot exactly say that there have been particular noticeable reactions from the food industry. However, companies that rely on trans fats to make their products will not be happy that the regulation is underway […] The industry may have had a hand in [the delay in the approval].”

Offiong added: “At the moment we are working with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to see that the draft Fats and Oils Regulation 2019, which they created and was shared with the public for input, is passed into law.”

The Ingredients Network contacted NAFDAC but did not receive a response in time for publication of this article.

Ultra-processed food fuelling the double burden

Although consumption of processed, packaged food is less prevalent in Africa than in other global regions, it is on the rise.

Nutrition scientists and public health researchers have warned of the ‘double burden of malnutrition’ in many African countries. This double burden is caused by the dual existence of diet-related health problems such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and malnutrition and undernutrition.

“[…] much of the current debate views processed food as an emerging trend and only among some consumers, especially the urban middle class,” wrote researchers in a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Global Food Security. “By contrast, we found that for 50 years the trend has been African consumers increasingly purchasing processed foods. We found that today increased consumption of purchased processed food is not confined to the urban middle class but, rather, has spread over urban and rural areas and among the middle and poorer classes.”

The researchers called on public policy makers to address this disease burden with measures that encourage food processing, particularly among small businesses in order to promote employment and gender equality whilst managing the portion of ultra-processed foods that are unhealthy.

According to CAPPA, awareness of trans fat and the associated health risks in Nigeria is low.

“Only a very minute section of Nigerians know what trans fat is and the risk it predisposes them to,” said Offiong. “There was no awareness about trans fat beyond the medical circle until we) started aggressively campaigning on various platforms including mainstream media and social media to raise awareness on the matter. We have also had engagements with experts and government officials, on speaking with the media about trans fats.”

Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) offer several functional advantages when used in processed foods because they increase crispiness, extend the shelf-life, and are flavour stable. They can be found in products across a range of categories from baked goods, such as muffins and biscuits, to savoury snacks, such as popcorn and chips, as well as soups and sauces.

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