Food import dependence and trans fat

Many instances of widespread chronic non-communicable diseases in countries are usually associated with self-indulgences that come with the growth of a nation’s economies, but the Caribbean has bucked the trend by leading its affluent North American neighbours in this unwanted race.

“In the Caribbean, our epidemic is the worst in the region of the Americas,” director of Barbados Chronic Disease And Research Centre, Dr Alafia Samuels, has said.

Dr Alafia Samuels.
Dr Alafia Samuels.

“You would think that North America, being a very developed region, would be the place where they have the most heart attacks, chronic diseases and strokes, but the Caribbean is in front of them unfortunately on all scores.”

Dr Samuels told the audience during her presentation on NCDs in the University of the West Indies’ Henry Fraser Lecture Theatre on Wednesday that the leader among leaders was Trinidad  and Tobago, with Barbados sitting smack in the middle zone, at No. 4, of the six regional territories worst affected by chronic diseases.

Heart attack, diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure, prostate cancer are the NCDs making up the top five causes of death in Barbados in that order. And, of the ten causes of death here, eight of them are non-communicable diseases.

Members of the audience in the Henry Fraser Lecture Theatre.

In another measurement, Barbados ranks as No. 8 among the fattest states  in the world of some 195 countries.

Dr Samuels said she was steering away from labelling obesity and the range of NCDs that go with “lifestyle diseases”, because it “suggests that all you have to do is take control of your life, do the right. [It] is really not as simple as that”.

She argued that in addition to people taking control of their lives, they must battle the influences of their society, the living environment.

The UWI, Cave Hill deputy dean of research and postgraduate studies in the Faculty of Medicine said the environment played a larger role in promoting NCDs than was usually considered. She dropped on her audience a peculiar fact about the countries dominating the top order of the worldwide list of fat states.

“Most of the countries on this list are small-island developing states.”

The epidemiology specialist said this fact “is not a coincidence, because in small-island developing states you have issues around food security. And no matter how rich you are –– some of these countries are wealthy, as is Barbados –– the issue is that you just don’t have enough land to grow all the variety of things that you need for a healthy diet in sufficient quantities for the price to be right”.

High small island food imports equal food dependency, equal food insecurity, said Dr Samuels.

“You are not in that much control of what you’re getting to eat.”

PAHO representative Dr Godfrey Xuereb.
PAHO representative Dr Godfrey Xuereb.

Pointing to a European, North America, to Caribbean unhealthy food chain, she spoke of items being sold in the Caribbean that could not be sold in North America; but further up the chain, products used in North America are prohibited in Europe “because Europe has a higher standard in terms of healthy food”.

Added to this dismal revelation is the inability of Barbados and other Caribbean territories to check what is being imported for the table of citizens.

“So as an island state, in the Caribbean close to north America, dependent on some of these imports, sometimes we’re not even sure what it is we’re importing because we don’t have the capacity to test.”

She pointed to the zero trans-fat marking on the labels of many imported foods as an example.

“We don’t have the capacity in the Caribbean to test for trans fat.”

Trans fat is artificial, formed through a food process called hydrogenation. Food manufacturers use oils, which are hydrogenated to various levels, to improve the texture, shelf life, and flavour stability
of foods.

Found in items such as baked goods, snacks, fried food, canned biscuits, creamers and margarine, doctors reportedly consider trans fat the worst type of fat because it raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol.

So devastating is this process food “ingredient”, that Pan American and Health Organization representative to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Dr Godfrey Xuereb, earlier this year made the call for Barbados
to ban its importation.

“[I] want to continue my plea to make Barbados a trans fat-free island, as this will rid us of another manufactured substance, which has led to the deterioration of the quality of the national diet,” Xuereb said.

But as it stands now, there is no telling how much of the average $981 million that Government said Barbados spends annually on food imports contains trans fat.

Dr Samuels noted that meanwhile the Caribbean fat problem continued to grow –– literally.

“Not only is this causing an obesity problem in the region, but over time it is getting worse”, with the men and children catching up with the women.

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