Poor hearts in barrels of harmful oils
As unbridled access to unhealthy fats consumption increasingly hurts the human heart, thousands of Nigerians die prematurely from cardiovascular diseases. Poor dietary contents such as trans-fat and unsaturated fat combine with hypertension, diabetes and obesity for a fatal damage.
In this investigation, TEMITAYO AYETOTO for two months combed five major food markets in Lagos for some of the cheapest, unbranded vegetable oils in demand, as well as some pricier branded ones. The samples were sent to a federal laboratory for analysis, which jarringly reveals that neither the rich nor poor are safe.
If lower price points in some food products only meant sacrificing aesthetics or taste alone, life expectancy may not become a concern. Regrettably, it doesn’t end there. It lures Nigerians into paying less for big troubles.
With cooking oils, unbeatable low prices place the crown on unbranded vegetable oils, often bottled in disused table-water containers and given different market names you will never find on any known product.
This is where the preference of Jumoke Akinrinwale lies.
Except during the festive month of December, when her husband’s employer gifts him two litres of sealed oil, labelled with a proper breakdown of fat contents, the expectant mother of two doesn’t play near branded oils.
She sets up her sewing machine in the tiny open veranda of a bungalow where she lives at Papa-Ajao, Mushin – a congested area of Lagos.
She can’t afford a decent shop yet, and can’t shop pricey options of healthy oils either, despite the common perception that branded oils are healthier than ‘killer’ unbranded oils.
“Before, I could buy 2½ litres of unbranded oil with N1, 250 ($2.6). But now, that amount can only buy 1.5 litres,” said the expectant mother. “And I cook always. Those who can buy branded oils are rich people,” she stressed, apparently hurting from the brunt of rising food prices.
Her weekly cooking routine often includes vegetable oil. If it’s not rice and stew requiring an average of 20 centiliters of oil, then it is jollof rice.
“On weekends I make soups mixing palm oil and vegetable oil. If I try to use branded oils, do you know how much that will cost in a week?” Akinrinwale queries, her lips parted and eyes bulging.
The least her household consumes is 1.2 litres of vegetable oil every week. Buying branded Devon King’s vegetable oil, for instance, will cost her 22 percent more at N1, 320 as of April 13. The same quantity of a rival brand, Power Oil, will cost 35 percent higher at N1, 466.
Sticking to an unbranded oil, however, will cost her a maximum of N1, 180 as of the time of writing this report. But she might part with unbranded oils if she increases the charges of her tailoring services, and is able to stop her clients from looking elsewhere for cheaper sewing.
Hers is a reality reflecting the current frustration of an estimated 87 million poor Nigerians, trapped in the web of an economy with one of the highest food prices in the world and a high unemployment rate.
The ugly situation combined with a rising population rate, sinks six Nigerians into extreme poverty each minute, according to a 2018 report by the Brookings Institution. The global research body in 2019 forecast that Nigeria will be home to 110 million people living in extreme poverty by the year 2030, if it is unable to change its current trajectory.
At 21.97 percent as of February, Trading Economics, an open data source on global food inflation, ranks Nigeria’s food inflation 11th highest among 169 countries.
The middle class appears squeezed under fast declining incomes. People are increasingly looking for low prices, likely leading them into harm’s way.
Cooking oil analysis
With mounting concerns from global and local health monitoring groups on the perils of dangerous levels of unhealthy fats present in common diets, BusinessDay’s correspondent, supported by the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), examined five samples of vegetable oils that are leading market demand in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.
The laboratory investigation was conducted at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, and the results were alarming. Nigerians not only pay for heart-harming oils at a discount, they equally pay higher under a false belief of buying the safest and sealed oils.
The analysis primarily sought to weigh the harmful levels of fatty acids that make up the total fat content in these oils. Fatty acids are the building blocks of the fat in our bodies and in foods. During digestion, the body breaks down fats into fatty acids, which can then be absorbed into the body.
Five food markets known for vegetable oils, including a company dealing purely in wholesale distribution of unbranded oils at Ijesha Market, Lagos were combed for five different samples.
Three of the samples sourced from Agege, Ijesha and Iddo markets were the most sought-after unbranded vegetable oils market-wide, while two are popular brands processed by known companies – Devon King’s and Power Oil.
In the local market parlance of oils with origins difficult to trace to specific producers, ‘Nigerian Kings,’ ‘AVOP’ and ‘Cotonou Kings’ exist.
For instance, the Anambra Vegetable Oil Products Ltd. (AVOP) used to be produced in the 1980s by a state-financed plant that now lies in ruins.
Yet, oils identified as AVOP remain the cheapest available in food markets, even with the pressure of pandemic-induced food price hikes.
Hameesu Ado, a young dealer at Iddo market, one of the most visited food markets in Lagos, sells up to 500 units of 25 litres of ‘ AVOP’ vegetable oils weekly.
These kinds of oils flow in from different smuggling routes including unlicensed refining stations locally.
The collected samples were stored in plain bottles and renamed before for testing.
Nigerian Kings was codenamed ‘Apple’, AVOP was labelled ‘Orange’,’ Cotonou Kings dubbed ‘Banana’, Devon King’s tagged ‘Cherry’ and Power Oil marked ‘Lemon’.
The chief technologist at the testing institute had no idea of their original brand names or sources. Within a week, the results were out, indicating they all had undetectable levels of trans fat, which in other words implies they were at least free of one harmful type of fat.
The results get ugly
Ironically, one of Nigeria’s most trusted branded oils that even comes with the company seal, Devon King’s vegetable oil, recorded the highest level of saturated fat of 78.6 percent, a level bad for regular consumption, and worse for heavy intake. Yet, PZ Wilmar Limited, the producer of the oil in Nigeria gives the nutrition labelling a facelift that covers the hidden harms found through lab testing.
The company puts the maximum saturated fat level at 50 grams, presuming that amount makes up only 35 percent of the cumulative fat of 142 grams stated in the labelling.
But at 78.6 percent, the lab analysis shows 43.6 percent more of saturated fat is understated in the product labelling.
The sample has its registration number from the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) as B1-7531 and the barcode as 6154000015404.
For Power Oil, another famed brand for packaged oil that its selling point is the assurance of ultimate protection of heart health, the disclosure of fat amounts is quite consistent with the lab results except for the saturated fat level. The NAFDAC registration numbers are B1-8258 and the barcode numbers are 6156000100012.
The saturated fat level is 64.4 percent according to the laboratory analysis. But the product labelling states it as 42.8 grams, implying 28.7 percent of the total fat of 157.2 grams.
As much as 35.7 percent of saturated fat is understated, by the producer, Raffles Oil LFTZ Enterprise, a subsidiary of Dufil Group.
This is a company that labels ‘unbranded oils’ as the enemy of Nigerians’ hearts while promoting awareness on the importance of consuming healthy oils with its brand.
The first paragraph of the product’s bio page online, presents a narration of how people ignored the dangers of unhealthy fats to buy cheap and unhygienic unbranded oils before it came into the Nigerian market.
“People would buy it just because it was cheap, paying little attention to other important health factors,” the bio says.
Unfortunately, the company falls in the range of some denigrated unbranded oils in terms of saturated fats.
AVOP, an unbranded oil that was tested, has a total saturated fat of 70 percent.
The oil is notorious for ‘sleeping’ that all of the 20 merchants surveyed on oil types identified it as a tough sell during the rainy season. Its soggy nature makes it difficult to refill.
Another unbranded oil that was also tested, ‘Nigeria Kings’, has a total saturated fat of 69.6 percent.
Ironically, when compared with ‘Cotonou Kings’, yet another unbranded oil bought from Iddo market, Ebute Meta, the analysis paints a picture where Mrs Akinrinwale with her paltry income could be consuming a healthier oil.
Of the five samples tested, the oil surprisingly has the lowest total saturated fat level of 30 percent. This is an unbranded oil without labelling.
According to the note that came with the result, it “contains the largest amount of DHA and omega 3 out of all the samples and it is the best in terms of consumption with low saturated fat and high polyunsaturated fat.”
It is one of the oils that even sellers distrust due to its porous means of sourcing and the high chance of adulteration.
“Cotonou is a dumping place and that’s why rice and oils from there are banned. Some of the oils coming from there are rebranded there, not the real content,” Olajoke Yusuf, a semi-wholesale dealer at Agege Main Market told BusinessDay.
Overstating healthy fats levels
Part of findings from the laboratory analysis in this investigation, is the inconsistency of facts from the branded oil companies that unfortunately command the largest share of public trust.
Based on the outcomes of the laboratory analysis, Devon King’s sample contains 6.3 percent of monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) and 15 percent of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA).
But, the company states more when it is actually less. It overstates MUFA as 26.7 percent on the product labelling.
Interestingly, PUFA is understated as 5.6 percent on the labelling data when lab analysis indicates it is 15 percent.
These fats offered in low amounts are healthier fats for consumption than saturated and trans fats, according to facts about fats featured in the medical encyclopedia of the US National Library of Medicine. They are naturally present in plant foods, such as vegetable oils, nuts and avocados.
“They can help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol level. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that can cause clogged, or blocked blood vessels. Keeping your LDL level low reduces your risk for heart disease and stroke,” the dietary piece states.
Interestingly, unbranded ‘Cotonou Kings’ contains the highest volume of PUFA of 66 percent while MUFA is 3.6 percent.
Power Oil’s monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats stated as 28 percent (45.5g) and 7.4 percent (11.7g) align with the analysis results, although low by dietary standards.
AVOP oil has monounsaturated fat of 12.5 percent and polyunsaturated fat of 16.9 percent.
‘Nigeria Kings’ has monounsaturated fat of 7.2 percent and polyunsaturated fat of 23 percent.
What do saturated fats mean?
Most food products have a combination of different fats generally classified as saturated, trans fat, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega 3, 6, or 9, and cholesterol among others.
Trans fat and saturated fat are exactly the sorts of fat threats that should have their levels kept very low to cut risks of heart diseases. Trans fats are unsaturated fats present in foods such as dairy products and meat, and in industrially produced partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVO).
High levels of the duo trigger a build up of harmful cholesterol in the blood vessels, raising risks for heart disease and stroke.
Out of the top 10 diseases driving deaths in Nigeria, ischemic heart disease is ranked 6th (24. 7 percent) and stroke 7th (17 percent) by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a global body that measures and forecasts health events.
In 2019, cardiovascular diseases largely believed to be worsened from diets with high trans fatty acids led to 3, 229 deaths in Nigeria, and 3,102 in 2017.
Globally, it claimed 612, 668 lives in 2017 and 644, 980 in 2019, based on IHME data.
Olufemi Fasanmade, a professor of Medicine at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos warned that trans and saturated fats consumption contribute to the rising prevalence of heart problems, other than factors such as obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and increasing stress.
“Heart disease is on the increase in Nigeria mainly due to the changes in lifestyle to the Western diet,” the professor told BusinessDay.
Eugene Nwosu, consultant cardiologist and chief medical director, United Heart Hospital, Victoria Island, Lagos agrees with Fasanmade, saying common fries such as chin chin, cakes and doughnuts often increase bad cholesterol in the body due to a cooking process capable of converting oils to more dangerous trans fat.
But mirroring the pattern of causes peculiar to most cases seen over the last four years of his practice in Nigeria, Nwosu said high blood pressure is a top trigger of heart attack and stroke, and many move about without a clue they live with the silent killer.
On top of that woe, many Nigerians have unfettered availability of unhealthy oils in their food supply.
“The culprit is mainly oils that are rich in saturated fat. They should be minimised. People need to understand how to properly read labelling when shopping,” the American College of Cardiology Fellow explained.
“The type of oil you eat can definitely affect your cholesterol, which increases build up of clogs in the blood vessels. The oil that is good for cooking is the oil that is high in polyunsaturated fat and also high in monounsaturated fat.”
Discomforting data such as these have increasingly sparked calls for the replacement of trans fat globally. But it is also spinning unintended outcomes as companies such as PZ Wilmar Limited shift to unsafe limits of saturated fat.
A 2020 report on sources and replacement solutions for trans fatty acid in Nigeria, shows that while the availability of technology for breaking down raw materials such as crude palm oil makes replacement easier for local companies, “one key challenge is balancing cost implications of the replacement options with the overall health impact and the need to limit the content of saturated fat in the reformulated products.”
The irony in it is that Nigerians who think they pay higher for healthier oils might actually end up with unhealthy oils.
When BusinessDay’s correspondent visited Oyingbo market, Tope Ojasanya, a woman in her early 40s with a thriving food business was excited touting how she has managed to stick with Devon King’s oil despite the economic hardship.
For her, it is about sustaining the legacy of ‘quality inputs’ that her mother left in the 28-year-old business before she passed away last year.
Her canteen tops the list of go-to places for lovers of deep-fries, craving to be spoilt for choices from doughnuts to akara (bean cake), potato, yam, and even mashed beans and oil-pampered stew.
Even though sales are yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the business consumes about 37.5 litres of Devon King’s oil daily.
“It looks inviting, tastes good, and lasts longer. With the nature of what we sell, taste matters a lot,” Ojasanya said, with no inkling of underlying features of the oil.
Generally, most unbranded oils are cheaper and offer similar levels of unhealthy fat for millions of poor Nigerians who are more bothered about what to eat than the healthiness of what is eaten.
However, as this investigation has shown, some packaged and more expensive vegetable oils beyond the reach of the poor will not save the rich from heart harm either.
Consistent regulation of industrial processes, increased awareness of dangers and policies that compel producers to replace trans fat and saturated fats, will save Nigerians, health analysts say.
According to suggestions from ‘Mapping of Industrially-Produced Trans-Fatty Acids (iTFA) in Nigeria,’ the 2020 report on sources and replacement solutions in Nigeria, trans fats and saturated fats can be replaced with unsaturated fats that have not gone through the industrial process of partial hydrogenation through reformulation.
In January, the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) asked NAFDAC to push for the approval of the Fats and Oils Regulations Bill as a New Year gift to Nigerians.
The group charged the food and drug regulator to set in motion the process for the draft Oil and Fats Regulation Bill 2019 to be passed so that Nigerians are guided by approved regulations on trans fats in foods.
Moji Adeyeye, NAFDAC director-general in a mailed response to BusinessDay’s questions on regulation and labelling irregularities said there has been a revision of the fats and oils regulations which has set limits for trans-fat with the aim of ultimately eliminating it from the Nigerian food supply.
The revised regulation, which is stuck in the approval stage, stipulates that consumption of trans fat shouldn’t exceed 2 gram per 100g of fat or oil.
The regulation further provides that for a food product which contains 2g of fat or more per 100g of the final product, the nutritional label should indicate the types and levels of each of the fat components in the product as saturated fatty acids, trans fat acids and cholesterol.
However, developments with increasing shifts towards saturated fat show that NAFDAC must do more than raising awareness on implications of trans fat and address the fallout of the shift towards other unhealthy levels.
Some companies with unhealthy fat levels deceptively understate it on their product labelling verified by NAFDAC in a brazen attempt that undermines the health of millions of Nigerians.
When NAFDAC was contacted again to ascertain the acceptable level for saturated fat in vegetable oils, BusinessDay was told there is no set standard for it, but only for trans-fat. This reporter was instead referred to the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), which according to NAFDAC “sets such standards”. After several attempts to also get SON to state what is acceptable saturated fat level in vegetable oils, Bola Fashina, SON’s head of public relations said “the saturated fat is listed in the fatty acid clause of the various Nigerian Industrial Standards for the different vegetable oils. Not broken down as saturated or unsaturated.”
It remains unclear if there is an actual standard, which vegetable oil producers are abusing. Perhaps, riding on the saying; where there is no law, there is no sin.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, however, saturated fat should not exceed 14 percent of the total fat content in 100 percent pure vegetable oil. None of the samples tested in this investigation met this standard, in the absence of clear-cut standards from the Nigerian authorities.