Devising a healthy trans-fat free life

The growing incidence of non-communicable diseases is a wakeup call for us to ensure we create a safer food system and understand why trans fats is a critical challenge for our country, writes Shri Arun Singhal, CEO, FSSAI. 

As the world is advancing and systems are getting complexed, food choices are also changing drastically all over the world. Today, with rapid urbanisation and changing lifestyle, dietary patterns have shifted towards pre-packed, frozen and fast foods including fried and desserts etc- those are high in salt, sugar, fats and even trans fats.

Consumption of trans-fat alone acts as a significant risk factor for coronary heart disease events and mortality. Globally, eliminating industrially produced trans-fatty acids can save 17 million lives over the next 25 years. It is considered the worst type of fat one can consume. Foods being prepared with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (Vanaspati, margarine and bakery shortening) generally contain trans fats.

In India, a variety of foods are prepared using these materials e.g., sweets (Jalebi, laddu etc.), bakery products (fan, patty, puff, cake, pastry etc.), which may contain trans fats. Furthermore, re-heating cooking oils can lead to formation of small amounts of trans fats; not only at commercial outlets but even at household levels. It also leads to formation of Total Polar Compounds (TPC) which are toxic in nature and cause severe health hazards such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, liver diseases etc.

Reduction of trans-fats is an absolute must and the entire world is making efforts in this direction. WHO has mandated all countries to bring down the levels of trans-fats from the food supply up to 2 per cent by the year 2023.

Thus, there is an utmost need to provide a healthy food environment that is trans-fat free to enable people to adopt and maintain healthy dietary intakes. FSSAI has used a multi-pronged approach towards constituting a “Healthy India”. On one side, the Food Regulator is bringing regulations and persuading food businesses to limit the fat, sugar and salt content in foods, and eliminate TFA, while on the other side, through the Eat Right initiative and awareness programmes, FSSAI is trying to generate alertness among consumers to reduce the consumption of foods containing high levels of fat, sugar and salt.

What India is doing?

Triple Action Strategy

India has taken a big leap towards trans-fat elimination by adopting the triple action strategy for reducing trans fats consumption. The strategy includes: Enforcement, Engagement and Awareness.

Enforcement

India took a step forward in following the WHO’s call to eliminate industrially produced trans-fat from the food supply. FSSAI has taken up the trans-fat issue at the priority with cohesive efforts directed towards best practices and policy framework. To control increased risk of non-communicable diseases, Regulation on Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Tenth Amendment Regulations, 2020 has been notified to limit industrial TFA (trans fatty acids) to not more than 3 per cent in all fats and oils by January 2021 and not more than 2 per cent by January 2022.This regulation has also been extended to all food products (having edible oil/fat as an ingredient), to limit industrial Trans Fatty Acids to 2 per cent from 1st January, 2022 under the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restrictions on Sales) Second Amendment Regulations, 2021.

Another important aspect is to ensure that school children and youngsters develop healthy eating practices. Keeping this in mind, FSSAI has notified the Food Safety and Standards (Safe food and balanced diets for children in school) Regulations, 2020. With effect from 1st July, 2021, it restricts the availability of foods high in saturated fat or trans-fat or added sugar or sodium in school campus or within 50 metres of the schools. This regulation prohibits the advertisement or marketing of food products, high in saturated fats or trans-fats or added sugar or sodium within school campuses or within fifty meters radius. It also promotes consumption of safe and balanced diet in and around school campus. A general guidance document for providing safe food and balanced diets and selection of right food items for children is also provided in the regulation.

While the regulatory action is mandatory, but regulations alone don’t really win any such kind of war, especially when it comes to changing behaviour.

Engagement

To achieve a country free of industrially produced trans fats, FSSAI is constantly working towards nudging food businesses to identify new technologies and ingredients to eliminate trans fats from the food supply chain. Engagement with all these stakeholders will ensure that trans-fat free or low trans-fat products are made available to people.

However, there are certain challenges associated with hand holding and educating stakeholders to comply with the regulation on elimination of trans fat. FSSAI had initiated the campaign “India@75: Freedom from trans fats” that aims to bring all stakeholders together and to ease the implementation. A series of technical sessions/webinars have been conducted to sensitize stakeholders like industry associations, bakers and food businesses, chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers, edible oil industry, sweet and namkeen manufacturers, laboratory networks and academic institutions. Each webinar was planned to target specific target audience focusing on challenges faced by them towards making a shift to trans-fat free products and doable solutions through talks/sessions deliberated by global experts.

Awareness

Elimination of trans-fat is a vital part of the “Eat Healthy” pillar of the Eat Right India movement. In addition to regulations on limiting trans-fats and engagement with stakeholders, FSSAI uses various mediums such as social media platforms, videos, public service messages, Eat Right Melas etc. to make consumers aware about the harmful effects of trans-fat and its elimination. It is extremely important to provide information to the public because unless they know what they are consuming they can’t make any informed choice.

Some of the action areas include:

  • Mass awareness campaigns to reduce salt, fat and sugar in the diet, – like ‘Aaj Se Thoda Kam’ and ‘Trans-Fat Free India by 2022’ and encourage consumers to voluntarily cut down on salt, sugar and saturated fat levels.
  • Dedicated webpage under the Eat Right India website to make people aware about harmful effects of trans fats on our health.
  • A mass media public service campaign, “Heart Attack Rewind”- a 30-second Public Service Announcement (PSA)with an aim to create awareness about the harmful effects of trans fat by, reducing acceptability of industrially produced (IP) trans-fat in foods, building public support for government action to eliminate IP trans-fat and leading consumers to the FSSAI website to seek more information about trans-fat.

A ‘trans-fat free’ logo was launched in October 2020, which can be voluntarily used by food business operators to empower consumers to make right food choices. Food establishments which use trans-fat free fats/oil and do not have industrial trans-fat more than 0.2g/100g of food, in compliance with the Food Safety and Standards (Advertising and Claims) Regulations, 2018 can display “Trans-fat free” logo in their outlets and on their food products. This is marked as an important milestone in the movement against trans-fats.

Transfat

Recently, FSSAI carried out a baseline survey in the month of June-2021 for presence of industrially produced trans-fatty acid content in the select food categories in partnership with Quality Council of India (QCI). Samples of various packaged food items under six pre-defined food categories were collected from 419 cities/districts across 34 States/UTs. Overall, only 84 samples, i.e.1.34 per cent, have more than 3 per cent industrially produced trans fats from the total of 6,245 samples. This shows that the industry is on the right trajectory of becoming industrial trans-fat free in the 75th year of India’s independence.

What is needed?

FSSAI has been taking several measures to tackle the issue of trans fats, with an organised approach to ensure India achieves its target and create a model where everyone understands the problem of trans fats. However, to make it successful, specific steps need to be taken other stakeholders. FSSAI is providing technical assistance to specific stakeholders to move towards trans-fat elimination.

Fat/oil manufacturers are being nudged to make technological advancements adopted globally and the most appropriate method to eliminate trans-fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils/fats e.g. setting up interesterification plants etc.

Sweet and namkeen manufacturers are being encouraged to maintain fat/oil quality and reduce the formation of trans fats during food preparation with the halwais and sweet manufacturers.

Bakers and food businesses: FSSAI has appraised the bakery and packaged food sector about the regulation and the trans-fat free sticker/logo by FSSAI. FSSAI also connected FBO’s with the edible oil industry to introduce the trans-fat free fats that can be used to reduce/eliminate the trans-fat content in their products.

Analytical laboratories: FSSAI is in the process of strengthening the laboratory capacity for assessing trans-fats in fats/oil/foods as per the global standards. In this regards FSSAI connected the labs with experts from WHO headquarters to introduce the newly launched global protocol for assessment of trans fatty acid.

Chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers: FSSAI has always highlighted the crucial role of chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers in providing healthy food options without trans-fat. To strengthen the skills of Chefs, restaurateurs, and hoteliers, FSSAI organised webinars, specifying strategies to replace trans-fat by choosing healthier cooking oil and altering cooking techniques, which are easy to adopt and benefit in the long run.

To keep up the momentum, FSSAI will continue to rigorously monitor and ensure full compliance at field level by engaging intensively with food businesses; capacity building programmes targeted towards food businesses; augmenting lab capacity to accurately measure and monitor trans fats in foods; and to achieve the goal of freedom from trans -fat by 2022.

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