KENYA – Health advocates in Kenya are urging food companies to align with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) goal of a global ban on trans fats by 2023.

The call comes in light of research by The George Institute for Global Health, which pinpoints the significant health and economic benefits of restricting trans fats in the food supply.

The study, published in BMJ Global Health, modeled the impact of limiting industrially produced trans fats to less than two percent of total fats in Kenyan foods.

The results are compelling: over a ten-year period, the implementation would cost approximately US$9 million (Sh940 million) but could save 2,000 lives and prevent 17,000 cases of heart disease. This could result in a net saving of US$40 million (Sh4.1 billion) for the Kenyan healthcare system.

Lead author and senior research fellow at The George Institute, Dr. Matti Marklund, emphasized the urgency of action.

“Our findings show that even in Kenya, where trans fat intakes appear to be relatively low, there could still be significant health and economic benefits to trans fat elimination. We urge food manufacturers to prioritize consumers’ health by removing these dangerous fats from products,” he said.

Legislative efforts and challenges

Kenya has already made strides in this area through Legal Notice 115 of 2015, which defines trans fatty acids and aligns with the Codex Alimentarius, a global food standards code.

However, the Codex Alimentarius does not specify a limit for industrially produced trans fats (iTFAs).

Celine Awuor, CEO of the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (IILA), highlighted this gap: “While this is a remarkable effort to eliminate trans fats in Kenya’s food supply, it poses an implementation challenge. To truly safeguard lives, we must adopt the WHO-recommended limit urgently.”

Global and regional context

The WHO lists eliminating industrial trans fats as a crucial intervention for preventing noncommunicable diseases like heart disease.

It recommends setting a mandatory limit of 2g trans fat per 100g of total fat in all foods and banning the production and use of partially hydrogenated oils. In 2018, the WHO launched an initiative to help eliminate industrial trans fats globally by 2023.

Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at the WHO, noted the slow progress in Africa compared to other regions.

“The evidence for the benefits of trans fat elimination is strong, but we understand many low- and middle-income countries face implementation challenges and are at risk of being left behind.”

Health and economic benefits

Implementing the WHO-recommended trans fat limit in Kenya could save approximately 50,000 lives and prevent over 100,000 new cases of heart disease over the lifetime of the population.

For every dollar invested, there would be a return of 20 dollars, resulting in net savings of US$271 million (Sh28 billion).

Trans fats, produced during the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, are a well-known risk factor for heart disease, but they can be substituted with healthier alternatives without affecting food quality.

“Kenya now has the opportunity to protect its people from this deadly additive, save lives and money, and join South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria as a leader in the drive toward a trans fat free Africa,” Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, remarked on the broader implications.

Increasing heart disease burden

The death toll from heart disease in Kenya has increased more than three-fold since 1990, mirroring trends in other African countries.

Globally, industrial trans fats are responsible for around 500,000 premature deaths from heart disease every year, predominantly in low- and middle-income countries.

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