Delay in gazette of NAFDAC’s trans fat regulation and danger for public health

Groups charge Ministry of Justice on speedy action




As the Federal Ministry of Justice continues to delay gazetting of the regulation and enforcement of industrially produced trans fatty acids (iTFAs) and oils as initiated by the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in 2019, Nigerians have raised the alarm that the delay constitute grave danger to the health of citizens.

Before NAFDAC prepared the regulations, the World Health Organisation (WHO), which initiated a REPLACE programme, had raised the alarm that over 500,000 deaths were recorded yearly from cancer, diabetes, obesity, liver dysfunction, infertility and cardiovascular disease caused by the consumption of trans fat and that over 40 countries of the world have put in place measures to regulate it.

Nigeria also reportedly loses about 110, 000 person yearly to trans fat and it is in this regard that NAFDAC’s Fats and Oils Regulations 2019 stipulated in section 2 titled: Prohibition that: “A person shall not manufacture, package, import, export, advertise, distribute, display for sale, offer for sale, sell or use packaged fats and oils as specified in the first schedule of the regulations in Nigeria unless it has been registered in accordance with provisions of the regulations.”

In section 6 of the regulations titled: Impurities, NAFDAC had stated that (1) No person shall sell, import, export, produce, market, store or distribute to the public edible fats and oils that contain impurities such as (a) heavy metals; (b) petroleum products, (c) foreign particles or any other substance not indicated in the list of additives for this category of food; and (d) naturally occurring impurities like Gossypol and (2) No edible fats and oils shall contain any foreign matter or have rancid odour or taste, among other provisions.

But since the release of the Fats and Oils and Pre-Packaged Food, Water And Ice Labelling Regulations 2019 for which NAFDAC sought public opinions and comments from stakeholders within 60 days ending March 19, 2020, the Federal Ministry of Justice, which is saddled with the responsibility of gazetting the regulations for effective monitoring and implementation has delayed its gazette for reasons best known to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami.

Explaining the harmful effects of trans fat, particularly industrially processed fatty acids (iTFAs), a medical doctor, Martins Ojejenu, revealed that the chemical components of fatty acid in chemistry, especially in biochemistry, iTFAs constitute carboxylic acid with an aliphatic chain, which is either saturated or unsaturated and that most naturally occurring fatty acids have an un-branched chain of an even number of carbon atoms from four to 28.

“Fatty acids are a major component of the lipids (up to 70 per cent by weight) in some species such as microalgae, but in some other organisms are not found in their standalone form, but instead exist as three main classes of esters: triglycerides, phospholipids, and cholesteryl esters.

“In any of these forms, fatty acids are both important dietary sources of fuel for animals and important structural components for cells. Harmful effects of fatty acids Fatty acids can be divided into four general categories: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fat. Saturated fatty acids and trans fats are associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease.

“Monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are associated with a decreased risk of coronary heart disease, although these associations are not uniformly supported in the literature. Various margarines containing trans-fatty acids were marketed as being healthier because of the absence of cholesterol, suggesting to use margarine instead of butter,” he stated.

He further explained that 15 years ago, research documented the grave health risk of trans fat, adding that in 2015, the United States FDA finalised its decision that trans fat was not safe and set a three-year time limit for its complete removal from all food chains.

According to him, the greatest danger from trans fat lies in its capacity to distort the cell membranes, while the primary health risk identified for its consumption is an elevated risk of coronary heart disease, which commonly manifest in cardiovascular or heart attack.

“Trans fats have adverse effects on the brain and nervous system. From the diet, it is incorporated into brain cell membranes and alter the ability of neurons to communicate. This can diminish mental performance. Relationship between the intake of trans fat and depression risk was observed. There is growing evidence of a possible role of T-fat in the development of Alzheimer´s disease and cognitive decline with age,” he added.

A Cardiologist with F&F Hospital in Lagos, Ufuoma Uruemu, also explained that trans fat is a kind of dirty oil, which when consumed beyond certain limits clog the heart and causes cardiovascular disease, adding: “Which is exactly why you hear that people just slump and die because their hearts have been overburdened by the intake of fatty acids.”

Chinyere Anthony, who uses oil to fry bean cakes commonly referred to as Akara in local parlance, added another dangerous dimension to the use of all kinds of vegetable oils in the country’s food chain, especially for baking bean cakes, fish roles, meat pies, chin-chin and other junk foods.

She lamented that all manner of compromised oils are being imported and even produced in the country, which constitute serious health risk to people who consume them, adding that the situation was getting worse with the increasing poverty and suffering in the land that is forcing many Nigerians to patronise substandard products including adulterated edible oils in the country’s food chain.

In spite of its harmful effects of trans fat, Michael Iniwewho, who refines vegetable oils at Olam Nigeria Limited, highlighted the usefulness of fatty acids saying fatty acids have important roles in signal-transduction pathways, cellular fuel sources, composition of hormones and lipids, as well as modification of proteins and energy storage within adipose tissue (specialised fat cells) in the form of triacylglycerols.

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He explained that fatty acids perform functions both within the body and in food. Within the body, fats function as an energy reserve, regulate hormones, transmit nerve impulses, cushion vital organs and transport fatsoluble nutrients and that fat in food serves as an energy source with high caloric density, adds texture and taste and contributes to satiety.

“Fat plays another valuable role in nutrition. Fat contributes to satiety or the sensation of fullness. Fats take longer to digest than carbohydrates or protein, because fats move slower through the digestive tract, thus promoting an overall sense of fullness. Oftentimes before the feeling of fullness arrives, people over-indulge in fat-rich foods, finding the delectable taste irresistible. Indeed, the very things that make fat-rich foods attractive also make them a hindrance to maintaining healthful diets,” he stated.

It is not clear why the Ministry of Justice is delaying the gazette of the regulations, as provided by NAFDAC under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Health, but a source at the Ministry of Justice in Abuja, who said he was not authorised to respond to enquiries over the cause of the delay in gazetting the regulations, maintained that the delay was not unconnected to bureaucracy in the ministry.

“However, as with all matters of national importance, the higher authorities at the ministry are concerned about matters of approvals from all relevant units and due diligence, without which the minister cannot approve the gazette of the regulations. But with time, which may happen soon enough, the approval for the gazette of the regulations will be achieved. There is the need for caution and patience with all such matters,” he said.

Stressing the need to gazette the regulations without further delay with a view to saving and protecting Nigerians from the negative impact of consumption of trans fat, Executive Director of the Nigeria Heart Foundation, Dr. Kingsley Akinroye and Project Adviser for Trans Fatty Acids Eliminations at the Network for Health Equity and Development, Dr. Jerome Mafeni, had at different forums called for immediate gazette of the NAFDAC regulations that would pave way for effective monitoring, implementation and evaluation of the regulatory guidelines.

Their counterparts at the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), headed by its Executive Director, Oluwafemi Akinbode and public health advocates under the auspices of TransFat-Free Nigeria have charged the Federal Ministry of Justice to expedite action on the gazette of NAFDAC’s Fats and Oils and Pre-Packaged Food, Water And Ice Labelling Regulations 2019.

This, they insist, is the only way to guarantee the safety of Nigerians as it concerns the consumption of trans fat and its associated health hazards in the country, adding that it was unjustifiable for the Ministry of Justice to keep delaying the gazette of the regulations almost four years after NAFDAC initiated the regulatory framework.

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