Consumption of trans-fatty acids, contained in products like banaspati ghee and bakery items, is internationally considered a potential health risk and Pakistan’s high intake of trans fats is a worrying sign that calls for immediate action by regulators.
People in Pakistan consume the second-highest level of trans-fatty acids in the World Health Organization (WHO) Eastern Mediterranean region, with Egypt on the top of the list. Research links high trans-fatty acid intake to non-communicable diseases like coronary heart disease, infertility, diabetes and cancers.
“Outside foods such as bakery items and samosa have high levels of trans-fatty acids, which leads to heart diseases,” President Pakistan Nutrition and Dietetic Society Fayza Khan said. “29% of total deaths in Pakistan happen due to heart diseases.”
“Trans-fatty acids can also lead to cancer,” she said, adding that banaspati ghee is a key source for high trans-fatty acid consumption as people take it through outside food and also cook food at home using ghee.
She said that many countries have banned banaspati/vanaspati ghee while others have restricted consumption of trans-fatty acids to below 1% total energy intake, in line with the WHO recommendation. Consumption in Pakistan is at 6%, which is very high, she said.
Diets that are rich in trans fats increase heart disease risk by 21% and deaths by 28%, according to the WHO.
The WHO said in a 2019 policy brief that the elimination of trans-fatty acids from diet should reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases. Industrially-produced trans-fat acids in Pakistan are primarily found in vanaspati ghee, margarines bakery shortenings.
“TFAs can and should be replaced with healthier fat and oil substitutes in the Pakistani diet,” according to the policy brief.
A former Aga Khan Hospital doctor, Dr. Noorain Faisal, said that banaspati ghee is dangerous for health and keeping in view the sedentary lifestyle of people, its dangerous effects amplify.
“It can lead to obesity, which is a precursor for many diseases such as blood pressure, diabetics and eventually heart diseases,” she said.
The Punjab Food Authority, in 2017, decided to ban banaspati ghee by 2020 after its scientific panel determined that it was extremely hazardous to the human body, The Express Tribune reported. The panel said that high quantities of trans-fatty acids were used in the manufacturing of banaspati ghee, leading to fatal diseases.
However, banaspati ghee, which is actually hydrogenated cooking oil, continues to be sold in the biggest province of Pakistan and consumed by people. The PFA in 2019 declared 103 editable oil and banaspati ghee brands unfit for human health, asking the manufacturers to meet food standards before production could resume.
“There is no such ban and banaspati ghee has been selling just as usual,” said former Chairman Pakistan Vanaspati Manufacturers Association (PVMA) Abdul Waheed. “The Punjab Food Authority was given a satisfactory response that banaspati ghee is not dangerous for health.”
Then PFA Director General Noorul Amin Mengal reportedly said the annual consumption of cooking oil and ghee for each person is estimated at around 18 kilograms in Pakistan while it was merely three kilograms in Europe. Mengal added that olive oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil were better options than banaspati ghee.
Waheed said that the campaign against banaspati ghee was initiated by foreign manufacturers of soya bean oil. He said that banaspati ghee melts at 38 degrees centigrade, which is the body temperature. Therefore his association was able to convince the PFA that ghee is not injurious to health.
“Margarine has a melting point of 50 degrees, which is dangerous for human consumption. But it was still being marketed as a nutritious alternative to butter,” Waheed added. “Margarine needs to be banned instead of banaspati ghee.”
A source in the PFA said while there wasn’t a complete ban on banaspati ghee, the regulator continues to check different brands of ghee for their quality and safety standards.
“There couldn’t be an across-the-board ban on ghee,” the source said. “We do check and warn companies for their quality and safety standards. The companies are given time to improve their quality and safety, which they normally do and they continue to manufacture ghee.”
The new Director General of PFA Shoaib Khan Jadoon was reached out for a comment but was unavailable.
A source in the oil and ghee industry said that comparing the eating habits of the world’s most developed region Europe with an underdeveloped country such as Pakistan was comparing apples with oranges.
“People in our country have to opt for cheaper options to get enough nutrients to run their daily affairs,” the source said. “Compare per capita earnings as well when comparing such things.”
The Competition Commission of Pakistan has resumed its inquiry against the cooking oil and ghee sector for alleged cartelization and violations of the Competition Act, sources told Propakistani.