Pakistan can contribute to healthier food options by adopting iTFA-free alternatives: Speakers

ISLAMABAD   -   By adopting iTFA-free alternatives and reformulation strategies, Pakistan can contribute to healthier food options for consumers and align with evolving regulatory standards.

This was stated by SDPI’s Joint Executive Director, Dr Vaqar Ahmed while speaking at a session titled, ‘Empowering SMEs; Training on reducing industrial trans fatty acids for healthier Pakistan’ organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute here on Sunday. Dr Vaqar Ahmed said the focus on crucial topics surrounding the reduction of industrially produced trans fatty acids (iTFA) remains crucial. “From understanding the sources and health risks associated with TFAs to exploring national and international regulations, as well as iTFA-free alternatives and reformulation strategies, we discuss a wide spectrum of essential information,” he said. Discussions on the regulatory framework and compliance with iTFA have shed light on the importance of adherence to standards for the health and well-being of consumers.

It is essential to reflect on the next steps for both SMEs and government institutions. For SMEs, implementing the knowledge gained here into their practices is important. By adopting iTFA-free alternatives and reformulation strategies, they can contribute to healthier food options for consumers and align themselves with evolving regulatory standards. On the other hand, government institutions must continue to provide support and guidance to SMEs, ensuring compliance with regulations and fostering an environment conducive to innovation and reformulation.  

Muhammad Salman, Country Lead Cargill said that discussion aims to make the lives of our countrymen better. In a country like Pakistan, we don’t have any legislative mandate to do so. Cargill complies with WHO-recommended tolerance levels and has stopped working with all the streams working with Oil and fat businesses. Labelling laws have been in place in the United States since 2006 and in 2013 businesses were asked to reduce the iTFA till 2016.  

Talking about the impact of trans fats on public health in Pakistan Dr Razia Safdar, Senior Advisor Health Centre at SDPI highlighted the significant impact of dietary choices on health outcomes. She says a balanced diet typically comprises three main components: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. However, not all fats are created equal. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered beneficial for health, while saturated and trans fats are linked to negative health consequences.

Industrial trans fatty acids (iTFAs), found in partially hydrogenated oils used in products like shortening, margarine, banaspati, and non-dairy coffee creamers, as well as in fried and baked goods, are particularly concerning. These iTFAs are associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and hypertension. In Pakistan, the prevalence of these conditions is alarming, with every fourth adult diagnosed with type-II diabetes and every third adult under the age of 45 suffering from high blood pressure. Regions like Islamabad and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) report high levels of dietary risk associated with iTFAs. The high intake of trans fats is a significant dietary risk factor, contributing to 58% of deaths annually.  

Dr Tahira Siddique, Deputy Director of Islamabad Food Authority said that trans fatty acids have been popular since the 20th century for taste, texture, and shelf life. As per WHO stats, Pakistan is the 2nd largest consumer of trans fatty acids in the Eastern Mediterranean Region after Egypt. WHO recommends legislative and regulatory measures to limit iTFAs ie not more than two percent of total fat in all food products. The ‘REPLACE’ initiative launched by WHO in 2018, is a roadmap developed to help accelerate the actions for the promotion of healthier fats. 53 countries have implemented best practice policies to lower major health risks for at least 46% of the world’s population.  

Dr Syed Muhammad Ghufran Saeed, Associate Professor, at the University of Karachi, talked about free alternatives and reformulations. He shared that the trans-fat contents of hydrogenated fats vary from 10% to 40% based on the extent of hydrogenation and hydrogenation conditions. More than 278000 deaths per annum are attributed to intake of the industrially produced trans fats. Five core strategic measures that can help in reducing or eliminating the trans fat content in food include formulation, modification of fatty acid composition through genetics, hydrogenation, fractionation, and interesterification.  

Addressing the Non-Communicable Disease Crisis in Pakistan Ms Farah Ather, Deputy Director of Standard and Accreditation at the Punjab Food Authority said that the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Pakistan has reached an alarming level. With six out of ten deaths in the country attributed to NCDs, and a significant three out of those six due to cardiovascular diseases, the need for immediate action is clear.

The situation is particularly concerning among the youth, with the prevalence of overweight children under five nearly doubling between 2011 and 2018. Additionally, four out of ten adults in Pakistan are facing obesity. These statistics point to a dire need for a change in dietary habits and public health policies.

As of February 2024, while 79 countries have enacted legislation or regulatory measures to eliminate iTFAs, Pakistan remains in a less restrictive category according to the WHO scorecard, having missed the 2023 deadline. This calls for a critical evaluation of the current food policies and regulatory frameworks in place. Ms Ather recommended a shift from the manufacturing of partially hydrogenated fats to an interesterification process, a potential technological solution to this pressing health issue.

Discussion aimed to assist SMEs in the food industry to understand the health risks associated with iTFA and explore viable alternatives for product reformulation, empowering SMEs to comply with national and international iTFA standards, ultimately contributing to a healthier food supply in Pakistan, according to a press release.

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