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The World Health Organisation has set a consumption limit for industrial Trans Fatty Acids (iTFA) at less than one percent of total energy intake. Most of the countries have either totally banned them or restricted their use in food.

Pakistan is the second-highest consumer of iTFA in the Eastern Mediterranean Region having health risks that are hard to ignore. However, less awareness prevails in Pakistan about this limit, and the use of iTFAs is increasing day by day.

Trans fats are of two types— natural and artificial. Natural trans fats are produced in animal guts and found in milk and meat whereas artificial trans fats (or industrially produced trans fatty acids) are produced in industry, adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. They are used to deep-fry food and prepare bakery items, pizzas, etc. Health experts and scientists consider them more dangerous for human health, as they may cause heart attacks and diabetes.

A symposium organized by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and Cargill on ‘Reducing Industrial Trans Fatty Acids in Pakistan,’ and participated by government officials, industry leaders, and health experts highlighted that iTFA intake is linked to a staggering 10.13% of ischemic heart disease deaths in the country — a rate higher than the global average. The seminar was a clarion call to action in a country where iTFA consumption is alarmingly high.

Underscoring the multifaceted nature of the iTFA problem, experts at the symposium said that it’s not just about changing consumer habits; it’s about rethinking how we regulate, produce, and consume our food. They called for a complete transformation in our approach to food safety and public health education. This requires the necessity for focused public and private investment and the urgency for all provinces to align with national standards.

Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) and Islamabad Food Regulatory Authority though have taken proactive measures to control the use of iTFAs: however, these efforts must be part of a larger, cohesive strategy.

Pakistan remains the second largest country in the import of edible oils and fats after petroleum products. In 2022, the country’s edible oil import bill was USD 4.3 billion, which reflects the huge demand for iTFA-laden products.

In October 2023, the Islamabad Food Authority following the harmonized standards at the national and provincial level decided to limit iTFA consumption to 02 grams per 100 grams of food in line with the WHO recommendations. However, the question is: Is this enough?

In Pakistan, alternatives to iTFA exist; for example, blending palm stearin with other oils can produce iTFA-free vanaspati. Direct blending of certain oil fractions can result in acceptable, low melting without oil separation. These alternatives, coupled with banning loose and reused oils, can significantly cut iTFA production in our food industry.

However, challenges in enforcement, public awareness, and industry pressure persist. The symposium called for a communication strategy to educate the public on the harmful effects of iTFA, particularly vanaspati or other hydrogenated vegetable oils, and the need for collaboration with NGOs and healthcare providers for widespread public awareness.

The Ministry of Science and Technology in collaboration with academic and research institutions through the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) and Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) should partner with producers and research institutions to develop healthier alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) need support in reformulation efforts, and laboratory capacities must be strengthened to assess iTFA content effectively.

Moving forward, SDPI, alongside its partner, Cargill, the world’s first and only supplier to meet the WHO recommendations across its operations, is embarking on a series of proactive measures to further the initiative against iTFA.

Activities from now until June, leading up to the Sustainable Development Conference (SDC 2024), include a focused campaign to increase policy engagement, public awareness, and education on iTFA’s health risks. This involves advocating for stricter iTFA regulations and tangible support for the food industry to reformulate products.

Collaborative workshops with the Ministry of National Food Security & Research, provincial food authorities, and key industry councils are planned to guide SMEs in product reformulation. SDPI and Cargill are committed to a Pakistan that is free from the adverse effects of iTFA.

The symposium pledged to launch a movement that not only advocates but acts to ensure a trans-fat-free future for Pakistan with the message that: “We must adopt effective policies to ban partially hydrogenated oils and ensure transparent labeling. A multifaceted approach involving all stakeholders is essential for successfully implementing these policies.”

(The writer is a Senior Research Associate at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI))

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Fatima Muzammil

The writer is a Senior Research Associate at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)

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KU Apr 10, 2024 11:38am
If PSQCA was to test the oil used in our hotels/restaurants, many would go to jail. The real cruelty is witnessed in small districts and tehsils where fake cooking oil is openly sold without fear.
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