EDITORIAL COMMENT: Govt must legislate against fatty foods

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Humanity is getting more and more health-conscious, rethinking how physically active we are, what we expose ourselves to, the foods we eat and so on.
As a result, there has evolved a whole global movement promoting physical activity to help people fight obesity and its resulting complications. The gyms, zumba, jogging and greater involvement in sporting activity are the modern lifestyle. Also a growing number of people are very particular about their diets.  They are eating less of red meats, refined foods, fizzy drinks and fatty foods, restricting themselves to smaller portions spread across the day. Suddenly traditional foods that were much-maligned a few years ago and associated with lack and backwardness are now most preferred.

Health insurance companies, churches and employers now have wellness programmes in which they urge their members and employees to pursue healthier lifestyles.

It is a whole culture change motivated, not only by the urge among people to look leaner, better and perhaps more attractive, but also its health benefits.

Too much dietary fat potentially results in a number of diseases — hypertension, cancer, diabetes as well as conditions like obesity which collectively kill 500 000 people worldwide yearly.

It is in view of the foregoing that World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday implored governments to remove industrially produced trans-fatty acids from the global food supply, if possible ban them. Industrially produced trans-fats are found in hardened vegetable fats, like margarine as well as snack food, baked foods, and fried foods including the favourite of many, hot chips. Trans-fats are made from adding hydrogen to vegetable oil and are used in processed foods to extend their shelf life or for deep frying because they don’t have to be changed as often as natural oils.

WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, urged all countries to ensure that their food is trans-fat free by 2023.

“The elimination of industrial trans-fats from food is feasible and is being done but mostly in high income and western countries. We need to extend these efforts to all countries,” he said.

He unveiled a six-point strategic plan, REPLACE that calls on governments to review, promote, legislate, assess, create and enforce strategic actions to ensure the prompt, complete, and sustained elimination of industrially produced trans-fats from the food supply.

“WHO calls on governments to use the REPLACE action package to eliminate industrially produced trans-fatty acids from the food supply. Implementing the six strategic actions in the package will help achieve the elimination of trans-fat, and represent a major victory in the global fight against cardiovascular disease,” said Dr Ghebreyesu.

Many rich countries, which introduced trans- fats to the world but realised their dangers some years later have basically eliminated them through legally imposed limits on the amount that can be contained in packaged food. Others have effected nationwide bans on partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of industrially produced trans-fats.

Denmark, for example, became the first country to take action when it outlawed industrially produced trans-fats in 2003.  Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, New York City and California have followed suit. The United States and Canada are set to introduce nationwide bans this year.

Although there is a clear effort by many Zimbabweans to watch their diets, the local fast food sector, the biggest culprit in promoting the consumption of trans-fats, is one of the country’s fastest growing industries. The fact that the country does not have a law regulating the use of the potentially dangerous fats worsens the situation. The same applies in other less developed countries where regulations — either voluntary or mandatory — are non-existent.

Zimbabwe must move with speed to eliminate the fats like what other countries have done because non-communicable diseases are sickening and killing thousands in our country.  It is not good for us to wait for an epidemic of sorts to break out for action to be taken. The Government must ensure that regulations are put in place for the fight to succeed and the regulations must be implemented religiously.

It is also important for the Government, working in conjunction with the food sector, to run educational campaigns, warning people on the dangers of consuming fatty foods. There are similar campaigns in regard to alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and so on. People, even if they continue smoking or drinking, would know the risks associated with that. We have no doubt that some have quit smoking or drinking on the basis of these educational campaigns.  The same can happen with trans-fats.

Using the law can work but our people must, on their own, appreciate the need for them to take responsibility for their health and physical wellbeing. No one forces them to eat fresh chips, deep-fried chicken and similar foods. They choose to eat them.

Therefore, they are encouraged to quit.  If this happens, industry would be forced to drop trans-fats and adopt alternatives that, according to research, don’t make the foods taste bad.