Kerala Sets Example in Trans-Fat Free Bakery Products

Matters India, June 27, 2020

By George Cheriyan and Simi T.B,

India has made a commitment to eliminate trans-fat from all foods by 2022, ahead of WHO deadline of 2023.

But at national level the respective regulations are struck at FSSAI/Ministry of Health level and none of the states has achieved any substantial progress so far in meeting this target.

However Kerala has made some substantial progress and moving towards trans-fat free bakery products. We did a research and documented the initiatives. So this can be a model for the entire country, a model which can be replicated in other states as well.

It is estimated that 52 percent of the total deaths in Kerala is between the productive age group of 30 and 59 and are due to one or the other Non-communicable diseases (NCDs). This makes NCD an emerging health challenge within the southern Indian state.

The only way to address it is by adopting a healthy lifestyle and avoiding any food which contains industrially produced trans-fats, as these trans-fats are widely recognised as one of the major contributors in NCDs. The pandemic add to the concern.

According to World Health Organisation, about 540,000 deaths happen each year across the globe due to intake of industrially produced trans-fatty acids (TFA).

Easy and profitable choice

Artificial trans-fats are used extensively in the food Industry because it promises a longer shelf-life and are largely present in Vanaspati, margarine and bakery shortenings. They are widely present in food products produced in our local eateries to popular brands of cakes, bakery products, cookies and ice creams. Due to the lack of mandatory trans-fat labelling on food items in India, it is difficult for anyone to know, if a particular food product is trans-fat free or not.

Reheating and repeated use of trans-fat oils is another concern. Such reckless practice is commonly seen in roadside food outlets, hotels, restaurants and even in our kitchens. The potential adverse effects that are associated with such practice are quite insidious as repeated high temperature of oils while preparing food items leads to a further increase in consumption of trans-fats.

In tandem with all relevant stakeholders, attempts are thus made within Kerala to adopt methods that could facilitate production of trans-fat free products without compromising quality and taste when compared to their trans-fat containing counterparts.

In fact Kerala is the first State to come up with an action plan to generate public awareness on the harmful effects of TFAs in commercially available food items and to reduce or eliminate TFA from the diet of Keralites. It also encourages the local food industry to meet the current statutory limits set for TFA. However, there are many barriers to promote trans-fat free food products among manufacturers and consumers.

From a consumers perspective, factors such as too lack of awareness about the safety of the food, little information and education about the trans-fats, non-availability and failure to recognize trans-fat free food products, and inadequate/no food labeling on the packaged food items act as major hurdles.

Even an informed consumer is therefore left in the lurch as the food products and oils they purchase often do not contain nutrition labels making it impossible for them to make an informed purchasing decisions based on the quality of the fat.

Search for health alternatives

Lack of demand from the consumers, finding suitable healthy alternative to TFAs and fear of lesser shelf life of food products act as a hindrance for the manufacturers.

“We need to educate our consumers so that they demand low trans or trans free produce,” said Vijesh Viswanath, general secretary of Bakers Association Kerala (BAKE), which represents 14,000-odd food business operators engaged in bakery business in Kerala.

Today, regular sensitisation and training workshops by the State has begun to bear fruits and many bakeries within the State are coming forward to accept the change. They have begun to realise that their initial perception that producing trans-fat free food items are considerably more expensive than regular TFA containing food is just a misconception.

In bakery products, one of the main requirements is that the fat should have some structure and solidity. This can be achieved by using oils such as sunflower oil, coconut oil etc, thus allowing manufacturers to swap expensive bakery blends for commodity based ingredients.

However there are few initial problems associated with production of such bakery products. For instance, there arise a need to re-engineer cakes blend and overall cake formulation. Any carelessness while mixing and identifying the exact proportion would result in weak structure and lesser shelf life.

But that can be easily addressed with a bit of training. Besides low availability of healthier alternatives for TFAs within the country in contrast to abundance of cheaper trans-fat supplies act as hindrance.

Taking into consideration the increasing awareness of a section of people towards food safety and quality, many of the bakers also are moving slowly towards steamed products such as Ela Ada, Kozhikatta (traditional Kerala delicacy made with rice flour, jaggery and coconut, steamed in banana leaves), or even going for steamed puffs. However the price of the same is little high, 2 to 4 rupees, comparing with the easily available vada or banana fry on the road side.

Challenges and way forward

Manufacturers should be able to learn from each other and that’s where the role of Bakers Associations comes in. Bringing them together to share experiences with reformulation can prove to be useful. Currently small and mid-size bakery manufacturers may be more challenged with implementation than larger manufacturers and may need more targeted technical assistance. Also transport and storage of transfat free alternatives is bit difficult in a tropical country like ours where the temperature is bit too high.

Even when such manufacturing challenges are slowly getting addressed the greatest challenge within the State is low consumer awareness and inadequate monitoring compliance. Comparatively though food regulators in Kerala is much ahead and has displayed noted improvement in food safety, most of the food laboratories not just within the State but across the country still lack capacity to measure industrially produced trans-fats. Inadequate staff, shortage of finance and deficiencies in the laboratory infrastructure is acting as a challenge in the fast-changing landscape of the food processing industry.

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. Labelling requirements and public awareness campaigns therefore seem eminently reasonable. Other country experience have proved that growing public awareness about trans fat risks has led many food manufacturers to dramatically reduce trans fat content in their products. There is also a need to encourage research that should be focused on the discovery and application of more innovative and cost effective TFA substitute.

George Cheriyan is Director, and Simi T.B. is policy analyst at CUTS International

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