Recently, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) set norms to limit the use of industrial TFA in oils and food items. Importance of a healthy population for the economy has become more evident than ever in light of the current pandemic. Evidences also show that co-morbidities like cardiovascular disease could prove fatal for COVID-19 patients. However a lot of challenge lay ahead in bringing in a healthy food system in a country as large as India.
What is TFA?
- The human body requires fats as it is an important source of energy. It is also needed for absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Fats are used by the body for building cell membranes and the nerve sheath.
- There are different types of fats:
- Saturated fats
- Unsaturated fats– this is the healthy kind of fats that includes monounsaturated (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs).
- Trans fats or trans fatty acids (TFA)
- TFA is the harmful kind of fat. There are 2 types:
- Naturally occurring TFA– found in red meats and dairy products.
- Artificial or industrially produced TFA.
Why is artificial TFA used in foods?
- Artificial TFA is produced industrially by a process called partial hydrogenation. This process involves the addition of hydrogen to vegetable oils.
- The process was developed by Paul Sabatier for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1912.
- This process helps make the food products more solid with a more commercially appealing texture and sensory profile.
- It also increases the product’s shelf-life and tolerance to repeated heating.
- It was a cheaper alternative to the fats used at the time of its introduction- such as lard (in western nations) and ghee (in India).
- The process started being used for commercial production in the USA and it soon became a staple in baked and fried food production by 1920s.
Why is it a source of concern?
- Unlike most fats, the consumption of TFA causes an increase in LDL cholesterol (commonly called the bad cholesterol) without causing a corresponding increase in HDL cholesterol or good cholesterol.
- It is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and deaths. This relation was established as early as in 1980s.
- Studies have also linked hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, excess inflammation (an important cause of many non-communicable diseases like arthritis), etc. to increased consumption of TFAs.
- It is a dietary risk factor for some forms of cancers.
- According to WHO, some 4 lakh deaths across the world can be attributed to TFA intake.
What is the situation in India?
- The use of TFA in India started with the introduction of ‘vanaspathi ghee’ by Dutch company, Dada and Co. (hence the commonly used term ‘dalda’ for vanaspathi).
- The product was widely marketed as a lighter alternative to ghee using India’s first multi-media advertising campaign. It was peddled as a healthier alternative (even though studies showed that it had as much as 50% TFA).
- It was less expensive than ghee- hence it soon took over the market and eventually became a monopoly.
- Despite several quarters expressing concerns about its actual health impacts and it being nothing more than adulterated ghee, the issue of TFA use in India remained largely unaddressed.
- In current times, TFA is highest in foods like sweets, street foods, baked items and packaged foods. It is also used to adulterate ghee.
- Apart from this, the practice of reusing oil by reheating is widespread. This generates TFA and degrades the healthiness of the oil or fat.
- A 2019 survey found that Indian packaged food are the least healthy in the world.
- This wide use has had major implications for the Indian population’s health.
- About 10% of coronary heart diseases in India are due to TFA intake. Some 72,000 people die every year due to TFA-linked CHD.
- India holds the embarrassing title of being the ‘diabetes capital of the world’.
How is it regulated in India?
- In 2011, India started regulating TFA by setting a 10% limit in oils and fats.
- In 2015, the maximum allowed levels was reduced to 5% TFA in oils and fats.
- In 2018, the industries took a pledge to comply with WHO’s call to reduce TFA by 2021.
- In 2019, the FSSAI released a draft regulation for consultation with stakeholders. The draft capped the TFA amount in oils and fats at 3% for 2021 and at 2% for 2022.
- The revised regulation covered refined oils, partially hydrogenated oils, bakery shortenings, margarine, vegetable fat spreads, mixed fat spreads and other cooking media.
- For this purpose, the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations was amended.
- With this, India joins the club of 40 countries that are taking efforts to eliminate TFA from their food system.
- The FSSAI had also launched the trans fat free logo to aid informed health choice among consumers.
- The regulatory body conducted a series of webinars to sensitize the industrial players like bakers, chefs, food business organizations, etc. These webinars were industry-specific and aimed at creating awareness about technological solutions that will aid the shift to a healthier food system.
- Earlier, FSSAI had tried to bring in front-of-package labeling regime whereby food packets are required to carry a warning label at the front if the food’s content of salt, sugar or fat exceeds a certain threshold. This could help consumers make informed food choices.
What are some efforts elsewhere in the world?
- The WHO has been calling for elimination of TFA by 2023. According to the global health body, eliminating this component from the global food system is an economical and facile measure that could have an exponential positive impact on health i.e. a ‘best buy’.
- WHO had released the step-by-step guide, REPLACE, for eliminating industrial TFA in 2018. It specifies 6 areas of action:
- Several countries have taken efforts to gradually eliminate the offending component from their food systems. According to WHO, the cases of Thailand, Chile and Brazil are useful lessons for India’s quest for a TFA free food system.
- Denmark was the 1st country in the world to start regulating TFAs in food.
- The Danish Nutrition Council began monitoring TFA in the country’s food supply as early as in the 1990s as multiple studies on its harmful effect started coming out.
- A major source of concern for the government was the TFA use in microwave popcorns (up to 40% TFA). The Danes were consuming up to 30 million bags of the product every year. Its use in deep frying fast food was also a concern.
- In 2003, the Danish government introduced a law to limit the TFA content to 2g per 100g of fats or oils. Violating the limit invited fines and even potential criminal penalties.
- This was a first of its kind restriction and it even covered the imported foods.
- Denmark attracted a lot of criticism from the EU for ‘restricting free movement of goods within its borders’.
- The Danish government, however, turned the setback into an opportunity by presenting the public health evidences and demonstrating the importance of eliminating TFA. In the face of the evidence, the European Commission conceded that the move was necessary.
- The Danish experience served as a precedent for other legislations across the EU.
- The US government had noticed that as many as 30,000 deaths in a year could be attributed to trans fats.
- By 2007, it forced the manufacturers of Crisco, one of the 1st TFA based fast food products, to produce it TFA free.
- Multinationals like KFC, McDonald, Burger King, etc. were also compelled to cut down their TFA levels to comply with the standards.
- There has been a significant reduction in the number of cardiovascular disease related death since the measure.
What are the challenges?
- Widespread use of reheated oils in both commercial and domestic settings. This is being fueled by high cooking oil prices. The oil prices have shot increased by 60% since April 2020 due to import dependence.
- Many consumers don’t pay attention to nutrition labels on packaged products.
- Many packaged food products carry misleading claims such as ‘high fiber’, ‘no sugar’, ‘70% fat free’, etc. In many cases, the manufacturer reduces a certain unhealthy component but simultaneously increase other such ingredients of the products. Eg: a product may claim to be ‘healthy’ because it has less fat content, but upon closer inspection reveals that the reduction was compensated with more salt and sugar.
- India’s front-of-pack labeling regulation hasn’t come into force due to strong opposition from the industry. The FSSAI’s proposed labeling regime has been stuck in the pipeline for 5 years
- Mandatory labeling would help informed choice but it has a limitation when it comes to unpackaged foods. Eg: foods sold by restaurants and street vendors, loose baked goods in bakeries, etc.
- During the lockdown period, the sale of processed and packaged food had skyrocketed, indicating increased consumption of less healthy food.
- The shift to a healthier food system is going to take time and investment.
- The issue impacts both high income and low income countries. But to address the issue, low income countries may find it harder.
- Economic shocks, as is being witnessed in the current times, could push the poorer sections of the society to consume cheaper food items. These foods are often trans-fat laden.
- The situation isn’t being helped by the high global food prices which are the highest in over 6 years.
What is the way forward?
- With regards to the FSSAI regulations, the key determinant of the success is implementation.
- There is a need to improve surveillance and inspection of food premises to cover the unpackaged food. This should be accompanied by regular sampling of food products, training of inspection officers and upgradation of testing labs.
- While formulating a strategy to eliminate TFA from the food supply, 3 aspects are to be addressed:
- All food products that contain artificial TFA must be covered by the regulation- especially the low cost products that often go under the radar.
- The strategy must cover all socio-economic groups else it would only result in health inequalities.
- Implementation and monitoring process must be simplified and inexpensive.
- With regards to problem of frequent reuse of cooking oils, the RUCO scheme is a step in the right direction. Under this program, used cooking oil is collected from various sources like restaurants for conversion into biodiesel.
- Encouraging cultivation of oilseed crops could reduce import dependence and will help keep oil prices in check. Availability of cheaper domestically produced cooking oil will help discourage the oil reuse practice.
- A significant proportion of food sector is composed of small and medium sized food businesses. There is a need to aid their smooth transition into a healthier food manufacturing regime. This is especially important given the vulnerability of the smaller players in the current economic state.
- The regulation could bring in the desired change only in cooperation with the industrial players. Consensus building will yield dividends.
- A policy brief from WHO found that legislated limit is the most effective policy option for reducing TFA content in food supply. This is also the only option that effectively reduces TFA intake among all population groups.
- There is a possibility that ‘trans fat free’ labels could mislead consumers into thinking that those products are healthy and inadvertently increase their intake. It should be noted that even these products often contain small amounts of TFA and the increased intake would bring the same effect as consuming smaller quantities of TFA containing products.
- Creating health awareness among the general public is vital to reduce TFA intake. This exercise could start at grassroot levels– in schools, anganwadis, etc.
- Encouraging R&D activities to develop alternatives that has similar benefits as TFA but without the ill effects could build consensus from the industries.
- PUFA and MUFA have been noted as healthier alternatives to TFA by the WHO policy document.
The regulatory authorities have been putting forth a number of proposals to curb TFA in our food system but the industries have been opposing these moves mainly for commercial reasons. Nutrition experts have been warning about the health implications of the lack of clear regulation for a while now. The pandemic experience have clearly demonstrated the relative standing of economic concerns and health concerns. There is a need to balance both concerns and for this India can turn to various successful examples, such as the Danish experience. The recent FSSAI regulation is a welcome step but its success depends on the implementation.
Practice question for mains
What is trans fat? What are the challenges before the recent FSSAI norms for trans fats? (250 words)