Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), in association with the Press Institute of India (PII), organized an online media workshop on March 26, 2021 to inform the media about the seriousness of trans fat issue, the regulations in place, the need for effective implementation of regulations and a change in cooking/eating habits. The speakers of the workshop included Dr Sumitra Shanmugham - senior medical practitioner, Ms. Rina Mukherji - senior journalist and Mr. Dhakshanamoorthy - senior reporter. The session was attended by around 55 media reporters and consumer activists from 7 districts in Tamil Nadu - Nilgiris, Tiruvarur, Cuddalore, Tirupur, Tirunelveli, Salem and Tiruvannamalai. Mr Sashi Nair, Director of PII welcomed the media stakeholders and Ms Saroja, Director - Consumer Protection, CAG gave a brief introduction on the topic ‘trans fat and its harms’ and also talked about the work done by CAG to address the trans fat problem.
Ms Savitha, Researcher, CAG presented on the policies governing trans fats globally, and in India. She highlighted that, ‘Globally more than 5 lakh people die because of cardiovascular disease due to trans fat consumption and in India, the number stands at about 60,000 deaths’. Hence, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put a global target of 2023 to eliminate trans fat from global food supply. WHO gave a strategic action plan REPLACE, which is a step by step process to eliminate trans fats from raw materials to finished products’. She also listed the countries that have banned trans fat production. With respect to India, she stated that ‘India has committed to eliminate trans-fat from the food supply by 2022, a year ahead of the WHO mandate. As of now, the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011 (FSSR) allow trans-fat at 3% by weight in oils and fats, which was effective from January 2021 and allow trans fat at 2% from January 2022. It is also noted that under FSSR (Prohibition and Restrictions on Sales), food products which use edible oils and fats as an ingredient should not contain industrial trans fatty acids more than 2% by mass of the total oils/fats present in the product, starting January 1, 2022’.
Dr Sumitra Shanmugham, Senior Medical Practitioner, Chennai spoke about the ill effects of trans fats on human health. She started by stressing how even trans fat consumption in small amounts can increase the Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) and decrease the High-Density Lipoproteins (HDLs) leading to harmful effects in the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. It also causes weight gain in general, leading to obesity, fat accumulation in the abdomen and indirectly cancer. She emphasised that children should avoid fried foods and snacks from stores, as these are high in trans fats. . Trans fat intake could create hormonal imbalance and irregular periods and there is some evidence that it could cause Poly-Cystic Ovarian Disease. High trans fats consumption is known to be associated with hypertension and diabetes which can be risk factors for complications both before and during birth in pregnant women. She explained that pregnant women can also pass on the implications of poor dietary choices to their unborn babies, or postnatally, through lactation. Finally, a post-menopausal woman, who is already going through hormonal changes, can develop breast and uterus cancer due to high trans fat intake. The risks of trans fat consumption in a woman’s diet can therefore be lifelong, with potential to affect the next generation even. Trans fat intake consumption in men is linked to poor sperm quality and count. The doctor ended her talk by giving a few tips on how reading labels can help develop good eating habits, to be watchful for words like shortenings, interesterification, etc., and to cook oil in a temperature less than the smoking point of oil. She signed off by saying ‘Eating intelligently is an art’.
Questions to journalists
How frequently does reporting of health/food related issues happen during extraordinary events like election, COVID 19, etc?
Reply from Mr. Dhakshanamoorthy, senior reporter - According to him, all media at all time, will allocate a particular time/ column for every issue. Usually, print media gives importance to issues viewed as more pressing. Generally, media houses want to package their news in a certain way to get attention among the public. He therefore recommended using celebrities to convey messages that might not automatically get traction.
Reply from Ms. Rina Mukherji, senior journalist - The frequency of news related to science, health and food is comparatively low mainly because only a few journalists have a science background to actually understand and convey the gravity of a scientific finding. Today, the media has become money driven and not many companies are interested in publishing such news. For instance, pharmaceutical companies are not always interested in publishing all the data relevant to their products. With respect to trans fat, she said that very little data was available which made it difficult to convince the public; and for reading food labels, most of the snacks are sold unpacked and regulations are therefore hard to implement even when we know that these products are high in trans fats content. .
How to make trans fat related news, newsworthy?
Reply from Mr. Dhakshanamoorthy, senior reporter - He acknowledged that this can be difficult because even when someone has died from an illness, it is hard to make a connection between his lifestyle/ dietary choices, the resulting illness and the cause of death. The public therefore tends to be a bit sceptical of data on why certain foods are dangerous. However, he added that using celebrities to convey a message always captures the public’s attention.
Reply from Ms. Rina Mukherji, senior journalist - Usage of data on disease is the best way to get the news published.
Finally, Dr Somasundaram, Designated Officer, Chennai gave an understanding on how reused cooking oil for frying bajji, cauliflower, chicken and fish are resold as deepam oil near temples. They are hoping to start monitoring cooking oil usage in low-end shops of T nagar and Saidapet after elections.
The session ended with an open house.
Question 1: How difficult is it for the government to make the public aware about trans fats?
Reply from Designated Officer: He said people are totally ignorant and they have poor purchasing power. People tend to buy things that are cheap because of their socioeconomic status. Hence, production of trans fats has to be stopped before raising awareness among the public.
Question 2: Why is the focus given to low income and small shop vendors extensively?
Reply from Designated Officer: He replied that the low income and small shop vendors are large in number compared to high-end hoteliers and hence we should educate them to bring a change of attitude towards reusing cooking oil, although enforcement is the major way to eliminate trans fats.
Question 3: When can we have the amended regulation in action?
Reply from Designated Officer: He said that it is a long process and will definitely take many years to see the success, adding that the government is committed to this cause.
Ms Saroja concluded the session by informing participants that the government is working on the alternatives for such oils and fats, but the responsibility falls on each and every one of us being consumers. Eating intelligently is important.