Veg oils: A viable alternative

Deccan Herald, February 28, 2020

By George Cheriyan

Each year, approximately 540,000 deaths can be attributed to the intake of industrially-produced trans-fatty acids, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). High trans fat intake increases the risk of death from any cause by 34%, coronary heart disease deaths by 28%, and coronary heart disease by 21%. Research has proved the direct connection of trans fatty acids with cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer, shortening of pregnancy period, disorders of nervous system and vision in infants, diabetes, obesity, allergy etc. This alarming threat is largely due to the effect of trans fatty acids intake on human blood lipid and lipoproteins. Studies have proved that trans fat increases bad cholesterol levels while lowering the good ones and certainly shows no health benefit.

Denmark was the first country to regulate the content of artificial trans fat in 2004. Before this regulation was implemented, the cardiovascular disease mortality rate in Denmark was 441.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Three years after the regulation was enforced, mortality attributable to cardiovascular diseases decreased on average by about 14.2 deaths per 100,000 people per year. Thus it was observed that the elimination of trans fats from food supply chain positively contributed to the overall betterment of the people’s health.

Growing risk in India

Figures highlighting the growing risk associated with the consumption of trans fats in India is alarming. Reports show that over 77,000 deaths annually, which is highest in the world, are attributed to trans-fats’ consumption. This is bound to increase given the fact that the growing population, economic growth and rising disposable income are driving India’s cooking oil consumption growth.

In a study by National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in Hyderabad, it is observed that butter, ghee and trans fats increased insulin resistance and effect of trans fats were found to be worse because they inhibit the metabolism of an essential fatty acid called omega 6, which helps the cell membrane function properly. The study also showed that the intake of trans fats during maternity increased the risk of diet-related chronic diseases.

India, like many other countries, is committed to eliminate industrial trans fats from entire food products in a phased manner. The country has already limited trans-fat content in fats and oils to 5% and committed to further reduce it to 3% by 2021 and to 2% by 2022, which is under process. However, the main hindrance in moving forward with the notification of the regulation and enforcement is the opposition from the businesses, mainly from the bakery industry, due to the limited availability of cost-effective viable alternatives for trans fat.

An alternative

Being a major source of energy it’s undeniable that our body needs fat from food. But to identify and differentiate the good fats from the bad is the challenges.

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, US and American Heart Association also recommends use of monounsaturated fat (canola and olive oil) and polyunsaturated fat (soybean, corn, and sunflower oil) in recipes that call for fat and advice reduced use of artificial trans fat intake. Similar suggestions are put forward in various other studies.

In Denmark, for example, 70% of the products had substituted partially hydrogenated products with coconut and palm oil.

According to a study by Centre for Science and Environment, a simpler way is to change the oil and opt for better substitutes of vegetable oils like mustard oil, palm oil, coconut oil etc which has lower trans fats potential. This is the reason why vegetable oils are considered as the best cooking oils for the heart.

However, there is a need for more research and study in India about the benefits of appropriate vegetable oils and making consumers aware of the same, which is essential.

In addition, the total vegetable oil requirement by 2022 is estimated at 33.2 mt, assuming per capita consumption of about 22 kg per person a year. Of the increased consumption, the government aims to meet half from domestic sources, which comes to 13.69 million tonnes (mt) by 2022, as against the current 7.31 mt, through expansion in sowing area and yield. Though several such roadmaps were drawn in the past, too, but the momentum did not continue. Because of the sustained increase in consumption against stagnating production, India’s import dependence of vegetable oil is widening. This is a major challenge and special government focus is required to enhance the vegetable oilseed production in the country. Until and unless, the governments properly address this challenge of supply and demand, the reduction of trans fat to 2% will not succeed.

Studies have shown that by reducing trans fats from oil, governments have saved millions in healthcare costs annually. Even more, as a nation, by adopting heart-healthy trans-fat-free oil, India can significantly bring down premature deaths, which is one of the goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDGs), to which India is committed. Let us work together in achieving this target and thus saving millions of lives.

(The writer is Director, CUTS International)
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