Dr Shauna Downs of Rutgers University’s Department of Urban-Global Public Health believes that poorer nations might consume products with more trans fats simply because it is more affordable.
Will the COVID-19 pandemic lead to an increase in the consumption of deadly trans fats in the developing world?
Industrially produced Trans Fatty Acids, or TFA, found in most fried and processed foods and bakery products, are partially hydrogenated fats which have been linked to a host of non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease and according to some reports, even some forms of cancer.
“Although we don’t really know yet whether or not this increase trans fats consumption, we do have some information from other shocks, which could inform what happens re trans fats in relation to Covid 19,” says Dr Shauna Downs, Core Faculty Member and Assistant Professor, Department of Urban-Global Public Health, Rutgers’ School of Public Health, New Jersey.
“So for example we know from environmental shocks, such as natural disasters or extreme weather events, that post those events, there is a tendency to eat poor quality food, because they tend to be more affordable. We know from data around the world that trans fats containing food tend to be cheaper than their non trans fat containing counterparts. So that’s one aspect of it,” Dr Downs said in an exclusive interview to Outlook Poshan from her apartment in New York City.
“The other aspect is that post shock, you tend to eat more processed foods as well. So there’s a potential there to increase intake,” she said. “And lastly, when we think about some of the benefits of trans fats from a food processing perspective, they tend to have a longer shelf. So right now with Covid-19 and the disruptions to the food supply chain, it might actually be easier for manufacturers to be using trans fats because their shelf life will be longer.”\
According to Dr Downs, the “problem with that is that it tends to impact the lower income population the most. So you might see a link between developing countries and an increase in trans fat intake. However, we don’t really know as yet.”
Does this cost factor explain the reason why low income nations are finding it difficult to switch to products which include less trans fats? “Yes, I think that is a big component of it. In the US, in Canada, in European countries, it’s actually been pretty affordable to switch over from trans fats to other oils. Except for bakery products which are a little more challenging in terms of product reformulation, but still in that case there is the transition to using palm oil which is cheap and widely available. The cost component is really important, particularly when you are dealing with low income populations. Around the world when you ask people what drives their food choices, it’s usually affordability, that’s the main thing,” she said. “So if you products in the market which are cheap but lower quality, people going to have to make that trade off between quality and price. And unfortunately it means sometimes consuming foods which are not the highest quality.”
So is there a possibility that poorer nations could cite the pandemic as a reason to not meet the WHO deadline of 2024 to eliminate trans fats from the global food chain? “Again, we don’t have the answer to that question et, but definitely resources, prioritisation are going to be put into the pandemic and how to cope with it, so there is a possibility that prioritisation of trans fats reduction could go down the ladder. So from the regulation standpoint, it might not be prioritised like it was before. But from the private sector, particularly small informal manufacturers, that maybe don’t have a lot of capital and don’t necessarily have the funds to invest or stretch it a bit more to invest in reformulating their products to reduce trans fats, for those companies, it might be even more challenging, because they are already in many cases being stretched economically,” believes Dr Downs. “That might be more of a disincentive to not reformulate your product.”
Besides, “The WHO has so much on its plate, and it so much underfunded, that it might not be on the radar yet. The thing with public health is that they are driven by priorities, and health ministers are driven by their constituencies. So if people around the world are worried about COVID-19, the emphasis will be put on that.”
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(Ramananda Sengupta is consultant editor with Outlook India.)