Kenya makes headway in unhealthy fats fight

Fast foods

Fast foods often contain trans fats, which the World Health Organization says have serious negative health effects and should be done away with . 

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Kenya is on track to eliminating unhealthy fats found in some foods, but experts say slow implementation of policies is derailing the efforts.

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) on elimination of trans fats dubbed Countdown to 2023 shows that about five billion people globally are still unprotected from unsaturated fats.

WHO explains that industrially produced trans fat (also called industrially produced trans fatty acids) are commonly found in packaged foods, baked goods, cooking oils and spreads. They are known to elevate bad cholesterol levels and reduce the good ones.

The fats, research shows, are linked to a number of non-communicable diseases such as stroke, diabetes type 2, heart attack and some types of cancers. According to WHO, taking in foods with trans fats results in about 500,000 premature deaths from coronary heart disease each year around the world.

It is because of the increased health risks from trans fats that WHO in 2018 launched a five-year countdown to eliminate trans fats consumed by people. At the time, only 550 million people globally were protected by policies prohibiting the use of industrially produced trans fat and low and middle income countries like Kenya were mostly exempted.

Only 43 countries around the world have been able to implement policies that will protect their citizens from such fats.

 “Trans fat has no known benefit, and huge health risks that incur huge costs for health systems,” said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus while releasing the report.

“By contrast, eliminating trans fat is cost effective and has enormous benefits for health. Put simply, trans fat is a toxic chemical that kills, and should have no place in food. It’s time to get rid of it once and for all,” he said.

International Institute of Legislative Affairs chief executive Celine Awuor told the Nation yesterday that the country should reinforce some of the regulations in order to protect Kenyans.

“We are happy that our country has made an effort in terms of policies that are in place, but we need more than that. It can only be effective if those policies are implemented and trans fats are done away with,” she said.

“It is time we ban partially hydrogenated oils or even set a limit on trans fatty acids in the foods that we eat. Since we are not producers of most of the foods that have the trans fats, the limit will help in achieving a global target for elimination,” she added.

Ms Awuor explained that whereas the country put up a legal notice to ban trans fats in 2015, it still remains vague as it is not bound to a specific standard.

“It is not even a requirement to date for the Kenya Bureau of Standards to test for compliance,” she said.

“People are afraid that the foods may have some changes, but research already shows that the fats can be eliminated without altering the taste and nutritional components of the food,” Ms Awuor explained.

Stephen Ogweno, a non-communicable diseases champion, told the Nation that it is time the government takes a tough stance on trans fats.

“We need the government to adopt and amend the trans fats policies and be specific on what is dangerous as well as be clear on the levels of danger so that we can eliminate those still on our shelves and then work on a plan to eliminate them from the source,” he said.

Mr Ogweno said that industries should partner with civil society to reduce and eliminate trans fats, with the government offering incentives such as tax reduction to encourage compliance.

“We need to continuously do research and provide evidence to industry partners and show the adverse effects of trans fats so that policy players can act on it,” he said.

Okiya Sayi of the Stroke and Hypertension Association said the government should regulate labelling of foods that have trans fats so that people know what they are eating.