Trans fat: The fat that can kill you

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277,992 people in Bangladesh die each year of heart-related diseases and 4.4% of those are directly attributed to trans fat intake

A by-product of a process called hydrogenation that is used to turn healthy oils into solids, trans fatty acid, commonly known as trans fat, has now emerged as a deadly threat to life on Earth and Bangladesh as well.

This abdominal fat is dangerous because it pumps out chemicals that are linked to the risk of diabetes and heart disease, several studies have pointed out.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 277,992 people in Bangladesh die each year of heart-related diseases and 4.4% of those are directly attributed to trans fat intake. Government and healthcare experts are working to follow the WHO guidelines for eliminating trans fat from the food cycle by 2023.

Trans fat sources

Partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) were commercially introduced in the early 20th century.

This process through which liquid vegetable oil could be made solid or semi-solid at room temperature won its inventors a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1912. Now this has turned out to be a boomerang for the mass consumers.

When vegetable oil is converted into butter-like semi-solid margarine or hard dalda, these become PHOs, the main source of industrially-produced trans fatty acid. It can contain up to 25-45% of trans fat.

Also, if vegetable oils are used over and over while deep frying foods using the same oil repeatedly for a long time at high temperatures, trans fatty acid is produced.

Usually, restaurants use the same oil for multiple cycles in order to reduce their cost of preparing food.

According to a study by Progga (Knowledge for Progress), randomly sampled biscuits of 12 different bakeries from the markets of Dhaka city were found to contain five to 39% of trans fatty acids, more than the WHO’s recommended level (less than two percent of total fat).

Very low traces of trans fatty acid can be found in beef, mutton, dairy milk, and dairy products but they are virtually harmless for the human body.

How does trans fat affect the body?

Trans fatty acids reduce the high density lipoprotein (HDL) or ‘good cholesterol’ from blood serum, leading to the accumulation of low density lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad cholesterol’ in the blood vessels and ultimately disrupting the blood flow.

Consequently, excessive consumption of trans fat results in an increased risk of coronary heart disease, increased risk of death from heart diseases, dementia, and cognitive impairment.

Trans fat intake is strongly associated with diabetes while a high level of trans fatty acids increases the overall death risk by 34%. It also increases the risk of heart diseases by 21%, and the risk of deaths from such diseases by 28%.

Policy to remove trans fat: What do experts say?

According to a report by WHO published on September 9, Bangladesh stands among 15 countries with the world’s highest burden of coronary heart disease due to trans fat.

Experts and government officials have been in talks to enact proper regulations in line with WHO’s goal of elimination of industrially produced trans fatty acid from the global food supply by 2023.

WHO recommends either limiting trans fatty acid to 2g per 100g total fat in oils and foods, or banning the production and use of PHO.

Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) member and Technical Committee on Transfat Member Prof Md Abdul Alim said in a meeting of the technical committee held on September 28 that they have decided to formulate policies on trans fat control immediately.

“Although we don’t have enough time till 2023, we are in talks with all stakeholders to stop the production of trans fat as soon as possible,” he said earlier.

Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution’s (BSTI) Deputy Director (Agriculture and Food) Golam Md Sarwar said it is a good sign that public awareness has risen against excessive intake of trans fat.

“Albeit late, public awareness has developed against trans fatty acid… a rigid law is necessary in this regard,” he said.

He also explained that if the law bans the use of PHO or limits the trans fatty acid level, then the production will also decrease automatically. “And those who will not comply will be directly accountable.”

National Heart Foundation Hospital and Research Institute’s Epidemiology and Research Department head Prof Dr Sohel Reza Chowdhury emphasized proper dietary habits among the public alongside legal restrictions to tackle the threat of trans fat.

“The nature of fatality has changed in Bangladesh and now we are dying because of our food intake,” he said in a seminar.

He noted that the lack of a proper diet is equally responsible for trans fat induced health issues. “We should avoid highly salted food and stop taking food from street side restaurants.”

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