The Edition, May 28, 2020

By George Cheriyan and Simi T.B

CoViD-19 penetrates more into people with low immune power. While food or dietary supplements cannot prevent or cure CoViD-19 infection, a good regular intake of healthy diet aids in building ones immune system, help stay healthy and fight the disease, writes GEORGE CHERIYAN and SIMI T.B.

The CoViD-19 case first appeared in late 2019 and has since then claimed the lives of more than 3,37,572 people and infected more than 52,05,900 people (as one May 23, 2020) globally, with numbers still rising. Most people infected with experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. However, older people and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are commonly seen to develop serious illness, leading to death.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), the best way to prevent and slow down this transmission is to stay informed about the CoViD-19 virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads. Equally important is to adopt a good personal hygiene, eat healthy diet to improve immunity and protect one from getting ill, since, at present, there are no specific vaccines or treatments to cure CoViD-19. While it is a fact that no food or dietary supplements can prevent or cure CoViD-19 infection, healthy diet aids in building ones immune system and help stay healthy and fight illness.

Besides, a good and balanced diet also help to reduce the likelihood of developing other health problems and Non-Communicable Deceases (NCDs), including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, which aids in increasing the gravity of such illness. WHO study shows, out of the overall Covid death rate of 3.4 percentage, 13.2 percentage were having cardio vascular diseases, 9.2% was having diabetics, 8.4% was having hypertension, 8% having chronic lung decease and 7.6% having cancer. So what we eat and drink becomes really important and our body constantly need enough calories and nutrients to stay strong.

Limit HFSS and Transfat to lower the risk of NCDs
Eating a variety of fresh and unprocessed food, and staying hydrated every day is essential to get the required amount of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, protein and antioxidants our body needs. At the same time, limiting the intake of food with high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), and avoiding food containing industrially produced transfats significantly lowers the risk of NCDs. According to WHO, about 540,000 deaths happen each year across the globe due to intake of industrially produced trans-fatty acids (TFA). Eating TFA foods not only lower the level of much needed high density lipoprotein (HDL) and increase the level of dangerous low density lipoprotein (LDL), it can also increase inflammation and weaken the immune system.

According to a study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Denmark was the first country to regulate the content of artificial transfat in 2004. Before this regulation was implemented, the cardiovascular disease mortality rate in Denmark was 441.5 deaths per 100,000 people in Denmark. Three years after the policy was implemented, mortality attributable to cardiovascular diseases decreased on average by about 14.2 deaths per 100,000 people per year in Denmark. Thus it was observed that elimination of transfats from food supply chain positively contributed to the overall betterment of the people’s health.

Figures in India, too, highlighting the growing risk associated with consumption of transfats, are alarming. Reports show that over 77,000 deaths annually, which is highest in the world, is attributed to transfat consumption. This is bound to increase given the fact that the growing population, economic growth and rising disposable income are driving India’s food consumption growth.
In India and most parts of the world, artificial transfats are still used extensively in the food industry because it promises a longer shelf-life and are largely present in vanaspati ghee, margarine and bakery shortenings. They are widely present in food products produced in our local eateries, popular brands of cakes, bakery products, cookies and ice creams. Due to the lack of mandatory transfat labelling on food items in India, it is difficult for anyone to know if a particular food product is transfat free or not.

Way Forward
India is committed to eliminate industrial transfats from entire food supply in a phased manner. The country has already limited transfat content in fats and oils to 5 percent and notification and efforts to further reduce it to 3 percent by 2021 and to 2 percent by 2022 is under process. CUTS is supporting the efforts and working with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). It is true, our country is still struggling with the burden of malnutrition and hunger but at the same time the issue of industrially produced transfats cannot be ignored. Effectively addressing this complex problem calls for a sustained, multi-sectoral response involving the public, private, food and health professionals and non-governmental sectors.

The greatest challenge to promote transfat free food products would be the poor consumer awareness and inadequate monitoring compliance. Comparatively, though food regulators in few states like Kerala are much ahead and have displayed noted improvement in food safety, overall, most of the food laboratories in our country still lack capacity to measure artificial transfat. It also needs to be realised that what the market produces is presumably what consumers demand. Food producers play only a secondary role in the determination of consumer’s food choices. They just manufacture and sell foods with price, taste and health attributes that consumers find most desirable. So the responsibility largely lies on raising consumer awareness and generate a market demand.

A study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans’ blood-levels of transfats dropped 58 percent from 2000 to 2009 after introduction of transfat labelling, an evidence that the labelling law has had its desired effect. Labelling requirements and public awareness campaigns therefore seem eminently reasonable.  But for the betterment of one’s own health why to wait for any regulations to come into effect. The immediate priority is to have transfat free healthy food during the lockdown, improve our immune system and protect us from getting infected.

GEORGE CHERIYAN is Director, CUTS International and SIMI T.B. is Policy Analyst at CUTS International.

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