Deccan Herald, July 02, 2020
By George Cheriyan,
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) cause 61% of all deaths in India annually. The only way to address this is by adopting a healthy lifestyle and avoiding any food which contains industrially-produced trans-fats. Trans-fats are widely recognised as major contributors to NCDs. Eating TFA lowers the levels of the much needed high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and increase the levels of the dangerous low-density lipoprotein (LDL). It can also increase inflammation and weaken the immune system.
Artificial trans-fats are used extensively in the food industry because it promises a longer shelf-life and is also present in Vanaspati, margarine and bakery shortenings. They are present in food produced in our local eateries and in 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.
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 reheating oils to a high temperature while preparing food leads to a further increase in the consumption of trans-fats.
In tandem with all relevant stakeholders, attempts have been made in Kerala to adopt methods to produce trans-fat free products without compromising quality and taste. From a consumers perspective, factors such as lack of awareness about food safety, little information and education about trans-fats, non-availability and failure to recognise trans-fat free food products, and inadequate labelling on packaged food act as major hurdles.
Lack of demand from the consumers, finding a suitable healthy alternative to TFAs and fear of lesser shelf life of food products act as a hindrance for manufacturers. 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 fat should have some structure and solidity. This can be achieved by using sunflower oil, coconut oil, thus allowing manufacturers to swap expensive bakery blends for commodity-based ingredients. However, there are few initial problems associated with the production of such bakery products. For instance, there arises a need to re-engineer cakes blend and overall cake formulation. Any carelessness while mixing and identifying the exact proportion would result in a weak structure and lesser shelf life. But that can be easily addressed with a bit of training. 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.
Even when such manufacturing challenges are gradually addressed, the greatest challenge within the State is low consumer awareness and inadequate monitoring compliance. Comparatively, though food regulators in Kerala are ahead and have displayed noted improvement in food safety, most other food laboratories across the country still lack the capacity to measure industrially-produced trans-fats. Inadequate staff, shortage of finance and deficiencies in the laboratory infrastructure is a major challenge in the fast-changing landscape of the food processing industry.
The market produces 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. The responsibility largely lies in raising consumer awareness and to generate market demand. Labelling requirements and public awareness campaigns, therefore, seem eminently reasonable.
George Cheriyan, is Director, at CUTS International and former member of Central Advisory Committee of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India
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