DURU Chinelo Bose, a 53-year-old lawyer and civil servant who works at the Federal Ministry of Justice in Abuja, likes to eat popcorn, especially when watching a movie at home or gatherings with her friends. Her favourite is microwaved popcorn enriched with margarine for its crisp and savoury taste.
When she was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2016, Duru could no longer satisfy her craving for popcorn after the doctor advised her to eat more fruits, vegetables, and fish to avoid the risk of other health issues like diabetes.
Despite taking medication, the high blood pressure often leaves Duru tired. She struggles to keep up with her intellectually tasking job of making appearances in court to defend her clients at least four times a week despite her poor health.
Against the doctor’s advice, she sometimes sneaks to eat popcorn with hopes that her cravings for the snack would, by some means, disappear.
“I like popcorn, especially the microwaved ones because they are easy to make and they take less time to prepare. But since I eat it occasionally, I can always get away with it,” she said.
Then she started reading up articles and other publications and came across ‘trans fats’. For the first time, she understood why her doctor advised her to stay away from her favourite snack.
Duru decided to make changes to her diet to remove herself from the list of over 150,000 Nigerians who are estimated to die from cardiovascular diseases yearly.
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Data obtained from a 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) report says 617,300 deaths occur from non-communicable diseases in Nigeria yearly, with more deaths recorded in women.
Margarine is a major ingredient for making popcorn, an imitation of butter obtained from industrially processed vegetable oils.
It also contains Partially Hydrogenated Oils, PHO, which popcorn makers say helps extend popcorn’s shelf life, but it produces trans fats, a leading cause of cardiovascular diseases.
“I now prefer home-cooked meals to fast foods since this is where you get most of the trans fat content. I use palm oil for cooking, but I don’t bleach the oil because it is in the process of bleaching that you get all of those trans fat conversions going on,” she said.
For Duru’s family of four, she is burdened with the impossible task of ensuring that the food preferences are restricted to cooked nutritional meals rather than deep-fried processed foods, a task if not managed properly, might cost them their lives.
Cravings for ‘luxury’ snacks still high
Some popular hangout spots where popcorn can be bought in Abuja include Cedi plaza in Wuse 2, Sahad Stores, Shoprite stores, and Jabi Lake mall, where Silverbird cinemas, arguably the biggest cinema in Abuja, is domiciled.
Like the popcorn, Duru patronises those sold at Abuja cinema houses are made with margarine and other trans-fat-laden PHOs.
Trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Some restaurants and fast-food outlets use trans fats oils to deep-fry foods because oils with trans fats can be re-used many times in commercial fryers.
Roadside popcorn sellers are also not left out as they also use trans fats oils. Their presence is registered in major markets in Nyanya, Wuse, Kubwa, GSM village and Apo. The popcorn prices depend on their sizes per bag or cup, which is sold from N100 to N1,000.
The ICIR findings also show that most popcorn brands sold in open markets or shopping malls do not have nutrition labels but emblazoned their packs are business stickers with their company addresses and phone numbers.
In 2017, Nigeria’s market for PHO was the largest in Africa, with an estimated market volume of 229 000 tonnes, accounting for 8.5 per cent of the total market consumption in Africa.
The United Nations Comtrade, an international trade repository, revealed that imports of margarine into Nigeria in 2019 was $18.9 million compared to the $15.3 million realised from margarine imports in 2018, which is an indication that the cravings for foods with margarine are high.
According to WHO, deep-fried processed foods contribute to trans fat intake, which leads to more than 500,000 deaths globally from coronary heart diseases every year.
Whenever Duru steps her foot in any supermarket or store, packed with chips, popcorn, candy or deep-fried foods, the statistic comes to life.
US -imported popcorn, locally-made popcorn contain trans fats
The ICIR obtained five popcorn brands randomly bought from Shoprite at Wuse Zone 5 and Jabi Lake Mall, coded 1 to 5 when taken to the laboratory.
Foodtown microwave popcorn, produced by Foodtown Foods in Woodbridge, New Jersey, US, bought from the Shoprite store in Wuse Zone 5, was the only brand whose label on its pack read that it had 0 g of trans fat.
The other brands taken for tests that were not labelled include Crunchy popcorn produced by Ashley Gonnet ventures, Holocrunch popcorn made by Gourmet Nibbles, Chloe’s gourmet popcorn at Jabi Lake Mall and Shoprite popcorn.
All the samples were examined for trans fat at the United Nations Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Center for Africa at the University of Ibadan. The laboratory specialises in tests on hazardous substances, including electronic wastes, Persistent Organic Pollutants, POP, and waste.
The samples were analysed using soxhlet extraction, derivatization and gas chromatography analysis to determine the trans fat content present in each sample.
It involves extracting fatty acids from food by acidic hydrolysis for all processed foods prepared from fats and oils containing only industrially-produced trans fats.
However, the test results on Foodtown popcorn showed elevated levels of trans fats, mostly compounds of octadecadienoic acids, at 12.7 per cent.
A 2015 toxicology research conducted by a group of Asian food scientists confirms that 3.6 per cent of trans fats in a food product corresponds to 14 g of trans fat per serving.
However, WHO recommends a mandatory national limit of 2 g of industrially produced Trans Fatty Acids, TFA per 100 g as the total fat in all foods and the ban on the production or use of PHO as ingredient food.
An analysis on Foodtown Foods popcorn reveals that 12.7 per cent of trans fats indicates an estimated 47 g of trans fats per serving, which violates the WHO specifications and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that stipulate that if a label on a product reads 0 g of trans fat, it should not contain above 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
The test result confirms that Foodtown Foods popcorn imported into Nigeria had trans fat content above the US approved levels, and the manufacturers had misled its Nigerian consumers.
It also showed that Crunchy popcorn had 16.3 per cent of trans fats, which is 63 g of trans fat, Holocrunch popcorn with 60.8 per cent of trans fats equivalent to 235.2 g of trans fat per serving, Chloe’s gourmet popcorn had 29 per cent trans fats which is 112.7 g and the unbranded popcorn at Shoprite with 65.1 per cent of trans fats.
Adebola Adeyi, a chemical analyst and resident manager of the UN partner laboratory, told The ICIR that the popcorn samples with these significant traces of trans fats present, if eaten regularly, will pose a health risk to consumers of the popcorn.
“If people eat this popcorn consistently, it will ultimately raise the “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) in their body and lower the “good ” cholesterol (HDL cholesterol), which is why there is an increase in cardiovascular diseases,” she said.
In 2017, researchers in Japan found out that trans fat in the body causes cholesterol to build up in the walls of the human arteries and raises blood pressure which is referred to as “bad” cholesterol posing the risk of heart diseases, stroke, and diabetes.
Though Nigeria is yet to pass the draft regulation on trans fats into law formally, at least 29 countries have taken steps to limit trans fat in their food supplies. Some of these countries are South Africa, India, Brazil, UK, the US, Thailand, Turkey and Canada.
A delay in the passage of the draft regulation into law or set up mandatory measures to protect the public from trans fat consumption puts Nigerian consumers at the mercy of industry players like Foodtown Foods who mislead consumers with deceitful labels on their products.
Reactions from popcorn makers
The ICIR reached out to Foodtown Foods to respond to its findings through its Facebook page, obtained from its website address, as there was no email provided on the label.
Barely 24 hours after the message was sent, The ICIR received a reply from Foodtown Foods stating the concerns raised should be relayed through a complaints page on its website.
“Hello, Amos! Thank you for reaching out with your concern. Unfortunately, this is the community page for all independently owned and run Foodtown pages. You can contact Foodtown with this concern at https://www.foodtown.com/about/contact-us,” the message read.
When The ICIR sent the message to the complaints page of Foodtown Foods, there was no response to its enquiry after two weeks till the time of filing this report.
Calls were placed to the business number on Holocrunch’s popcorn pack to which True Caller, a calling identification application revealed the line was registered as Zena Eloho, but when The ICIR revealed its findings to her, she ended the call abruptly.
She didn’t answer subsequent calls to her line and failed to respond to text messages and a WhatsApp message that were sent to her to ascertain if she was aware of the trans fat content present in her popcorn or if the findings of The ICIR was a piece of new information to her.
Efforts to reach out to producers of Chloe’s gourmet popcorn were unsuccessful as the numbers on its pack were not reachable, and a voice message by the network provider says the number had been barred for not being registered.
Trans fat still undetected on the streets
Twenty-seven-year-old Bola Aduke makes at least N3,000 daily from selling popcorn, except when she takes the day off to rest, mostly on Sundays. She sells to at least 60 customers daily but on busy days she has more customers.
She started the popcorn business three years ago, securing a stall in the market which consists of a shed and her popcorn making machine close to GSM village in Wuse Zone 1, a popular market well-known for the sale and repairs of phones and computers.
Aduke spends at least N10,500 to buy a carton of Monita margarine, a major ingredient she uses for making the popcorn which she says can take her for a month.
However, the label on Monita margarine says it is cholesterol-free and made from pure vegetable oil but when The ICIR carried out checks, there was no mention of the trans fat content. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
“I don’t really have customers very early in the morning so I start popping corn around 10 am. But from late in the afternoon that is the peak of business for me because that is when regular customers start to arrive,” she said.
Niall Young and Paul Wassell in their 2008 research, ‘Food Emulsifiers and their applications,’ revealed that industrial trans fat can be found in huge quantities in foods processed with margarine because they contain partially hydrogenated oils and have an 80 per cent fatty content.
Aduke says her regular customers buy popcorn from her almost on a daily basis but she was unable to put a figure to the exact number of regular customers that patronised her when the ICIR queried her.
“I have many regular faces that come back. A trial will convince you,” she told The ICIR reporter.
This confirmation shows that Aduke’s customers are regularly exposed to the dangers of trans fat without their knowledge. Without labels on Bola’s popcorn to indicate the trans fat content present, it is difficult to ascertain the levels of exposure of her customers to the dangers of cardiovascular diseases from eating her popcorn.
Twenty-Four-year-old Precious Denen, a roadside popcorn maker in Nyanya makes substantial profits from which she saves part of her daily sales with a thrift collector.
She sells mostly during the evenings when the nightlife in Nyanya begins and most of her customers who are arriving from work buy from her, before continuing their journey home.
Unlike Aduke who prefers to use only margarine in making her popcorn, Precious switches from vegetable oil to margarine, depending on the cost of the ingredient in the market.
“I don’t have any idea on the implications of using margarine or vegetable oil because I was taught to use any of them for convenience purposes since both of them can make the corn pop,” she said.
Though Denen earns a living from selling popcorn, she is not aware that using margarine could increase her customers’ chances of having cardiovascular diseases due to the PHO present.
“This is the first time I have heard that using margarine to popcorn could be harmful to the health of people, but this trans fat thing I don’t think is as harmful as it is portrayed because I have been using margarine to make popcorn for quite some time and yet to see any harmful effects,” she said.
Jerome Mafeni, a public health practitioners,r said foods high in trans fats are a “silent killer” that will not show its dangers instantaneously but will cause irreparable damage to the body.
“Eating foods high in trans fat will not have a short term effect, it’s not like if you eat foods with trans fat today you will see the effects the next day. What makes it dangerous is that trans fats block your arteries after accumulating in the body for a long time which leads to cardiovascular diseases,” he said.
In January 2020, Nigeria submitted a national draft policy for best practice on Trans Fatty Acid, TFA, for public comment. The draft stipulates the limit of TFA to 2 per cent of oils and fats in all oils, greases and foods in the country.
However, there is no legislation in the country on the control of trans fat,s but the nation’s commitment to eliminate trans fat, which started in 2018, was commended by WHO as the passage of the best-practice policy that would advance regulations TFA elimination.
Ikenna Chiawa, the Medical Officer at General Hospital, Bomadi, Delta State told The ICIR that population shift from rural to urban areas has contributed to change in diets from nutrient-rich whole foods, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables to a diet consisting of more processed foods, fats and animal-derived foods.
“Our diets have become like that of the western world. The rate at which we started consuming processed and deep-fried foods which contain trans fat, has increased in recent years because people want to eat the kind of things eaten abroad.
“I can tell you as a doctor that dietary factors have about a 60 per cent role in cardiovascular diseases that have become more prevalent among young people when compared to two decades ago, which should tell us something about our diet that has changed,” he said.
He stated further, that dietary change to processed and fried foods has made urban food security and health one of Africa’s most significant development challenges.
Nigeria suffers from one of the highest rates of deaths from Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Africa, which is linked to poor diets and could likely increase steadily by 4 per cent in 2030, according to a 2020 research study published in the Journal of Health Research.
Bridget Nwagbara, a public health specialist and a former consultant on the WHO national project on Non-Communicable Diseases, Interventions, said unregulated trans fat in foods poses serious concerns which she blamed on unhealthy eating habits.
“Trans fat is a serious problem. There are snacks that people eat every day without knowing that they are harmful. In the past, it was unusual for young people in their twenties to have cardiovascular diseases but what we see now is young people with these diseases and eating healthy diets is still not a priority,” she said.
According to Prince Nwafuru, a lawyer and international trade law expert at Paul Usoro & Co, when food products are imported into the country and without strict regulations, Nigerian lives would be at risk especially when the products would affect human health.
“The 2018 Consumer Protection Act empowers specific agencies of government to take action when it comes to consumer-related issues or cases of products that are not reflective of their description and it imposes obligations on the chain of suppliers, importers and sellers to protect Nigerians so if their product is considered harmful then they are all culpable.
“If cases are identified, then the regulatory agencies should be informed through petitions so the seller can fish out the supplier and the links of funnelling such products will be taken from the markets,” he said.
A handicapped watchdog
The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, FCCPC, is one of the members of the Industrial Trans Fatty Acids, iTFA, reduction technical working group saddled with the responsibility of developing policies and regulations to promote iTFA replacement in Nigeria.
The spokesperson of the agency, Ondaje Ijagwu said, the labelling of food products was monitored through surveillance but blamed the challenges posed by insufficient manpower to effectively monitor Nigeria’s large market.
“There is a standard form of enforcement we carry out at FCCPC which involves undertaking surveillance through random checks to ensure that we read labels and ensure that basic standard requirement is followed.
“Most times this is a challenge, due to Nigeria’s large market we are constrained by insufficient manpower because sometimes products that breached regulations which we are tracking could be circulated far from their areas of manufacture which makes it necessary to circumvent such channels and nip the source in the bud,” he said.
From Aduke to Denen, the bonding factor that holds them is that they never had basic enlightenment on the dangers of using partially hydrogenated oils to make popcorn for their customers.
However, their ignorance does not exempt them and their customers from the dangers of eating popcorn with large amounts of trans fats.