Christopher Tufton | Let’s free ourselves of trans fats
IT IS time to free ourselves of trans fats. The trans fats or trans-fatty acids in our food are a major cause of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes that are the leading killers of adults today. Trans-fat consumption has also...
IT IS time to free ourselves of trans fats. The trans fats or trans-fatty acids in our food are a major cause of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes that are the leading killers of adults today.
Trans-fat consumption has also been linked to “increased risk of infertility, endometriosis, gallstones, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and some cancers” (Downs et al 2013, as cited by the CARICOM technical brief, Promoting Health Diets and Sustainable Development in the Caribbean through Joint Policy Action, 2017).
Trans fats or trans-fatty acids – found in fast foods, baked goods, fats, oils and shortening – have been deemed so dangerous to the public’s health and as such a significant contributor to healthcare costs, that the most advanced countries in the world and our major trading partners (the United States and Canada) have banned their use. There is also a voluntary agreement between the United Kingdom and industry players not to use artificial trans fats.
Jamaica must itself move with urgency to eliminate industrially produced trans fats from our food systems. We have started the process with investigations into how much of our foods contain trans fats. Through partnership with the National Health Fund and the University of Technology, the Ministry of Health and Wellness commissioned a trans-fats study.
Key findings in this study are that trans fats were found in 117 of 296 food samples, that is, 39.5 per cent of commonly consumed foods in Jamaica. Industrially produced trans fats were found in 12 of the 15 food categories investigated. Although natural trans fats are also found in some food categories, their concentrations are low.
Food Category Total Food Items (No.) Foods with Trans Fat (No.) Foods without Trans Fat (No.)
Baked Goods 16 12 4
Breakfast Cereals 11 8 3
Condiments 21 14 7
Dairy 35 18 17
Fast Foods 34 23 11
Total 117 75 42
These findings will be infused into the overall engagement of the public around knowing the content of their foods.
In the coming months, the Ministry of Health & Wellness will invite private sector stakeholders, manufacturers and distributors to present and discuss the detailed findings of our study.
Jamaica has also thrown its support behind the call of Latin America and the Caribbean for the elimination of industrially produced trans-fatty acids through high-level agreements, and the enactment of legislation in some countries.
The regional response to date include the 2007 Port of Spain Declaration through which all CARICOM Heads of Government committed to achieving a trans-fat-free food supply in the region, and the Trans Fat Free Americas Declaration of Rio de Janeiro of 2008 (industry commitment to voluntary reformulation).
There is, too, the CARICOM Technical Brief, Promoting Healthy Diets, Food Security, and Sustainable Development in the Caribbean through Joint Policy Action. The brief reminds us of the 2011 UN Political Declaration on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) that calls for the elimination of industrially produced trans fats in foods as part of the actions to discourage the production and marketing of foods that contribute to unhealthy diet.
There was also the CARPHA High Level Meeting to Develop a Roadmap on Multi-Sectoral Action in Countries to Prevent Childhood Obesity through Improved Food and Nutrition. Mandatory regulations to eliminate industrially produced trans-fatty acids have also been successfully adopted by some countries in the region, achieving compliance and positive health impacts.
Jamaica continues to support work in this regard, including the PAHO Plan of Action for the Elimination of Industrially Produced Trans-Fatty Acids 2020-2025 at the 57th Directing Council, 71st Session of the Regional Committee of WHO for the Americas, held 30 September – 4 October 2019.
The island has also upgraded two main food testing laboratories, namely the Bureau of Standards Jamaica and the Scientific Research Council. The laboratories received gas chromatography machines for analysis of trans fat in foods. Technicians from both laboratories and Government Chemist were trained. The upgrade was part of a larger Food and Nutrition Security Project which involved collaboration between academia (University of Technology) and the testing laboratories to conduct research and analyses of foods in support of policy development.
Jamaica has also participated in the development of CARICOM standards to include front of package labelling and mandatory nutrition facts panel. We have participated, too, in the PAHO/WHO Workshop on regulatory mechanisms and regulatory impact assessments to eliminate industrially produced trans-fatty acids from the food supply in the Region of the Americas. Workshops were held in Mexico City, Mexico, from July 17-18, 2019 and in Washington, DC, USA, from September 11-12, also in 2019.
As a Government, we support the continued effort to protect the population and endorse the decisions of CARICOM in this regard. The realities of the NCDs challenge facing Jamaica and the region demands this; we cannot delay. One in three Jamaicans has hypertension; one in eight has diabetes and one in two is overweight or obese.
At the same time, as a Ministry of Health & Wellness and a Government, our efforts cannot only be about our ability to provide prescription medication, hospitals and health centres. It is also not just about what the Government can do. It is also about what we can do for ourselves – the foods we eat, rest and relaxation and physical activity. It is about how we configure our society to encourage health-seeking behaviour, and to nudge people into healthier lifestyle practices. We must promote consumer awareness as we encourage taking personal responsibility and discouraging unhealthy practices, particularly those that are potentially addictive and destructive.
While we respect the freedom of choice, we must recognise the collective burden we bear as a country from choosing to consume excess salts, sugars and fats or tobacco and alcohol. When we do this, we develop a sick profile that becomes a burden, not only to the public healthcare system, but also to our families and friends.
I encourage all of us, therefore, to subscribe to the principle of primordial prevention and of using policies and laws within the wider socio-economic context to combine behavioural and clinical sciences to achieve a healthier society.
Dr Christopher Tufton is minister of health & wellness. Email feedback to email@example.com.