Bottled soybean oil contains harmful 'trans fat'

Bottled soybean oil
File photo

Bottled soybean oil available in the domestic market has been found to contain higher than acceptable levels of trans-unsaturated fatty acids. These harmful substances pose a long-term risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

This revelation comes from a two-year study conducted by 13 researchers from Dhaka University's Institute of Nutrition and Food Science and BRAC University's James P. Grant School of Public Health. Approximately 67 per cent of the samples of bottled soybean oil from various companies in the market were found to contain trans fatty acids above the tolerable level. For open soybean oil, the rate is around 25 per cent. None of the palm oil samples were found to have trans fatty acids above the tolerable levels.

Trans fatty acids, commonly known as transfats, can develop in soybean oil during the refining process. This study highlights that transfats tend to increase when edible oils undergo refining at high temperatures, according to previous research.

Nazma Shaheen, the team leader of the research and professor at the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science of Dhaka University, explained to Prothom Alo, “The research aimed to assess the quality of edible oil in the country. According to our research findings, the condition of the edible oil available in the market suggests long-term damage to the public health of the country.”

Professor Nazma Shaheen also mentioned that the government's safe food authority has established the tolerable level of transfat in edible oil in accordance with the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO). It is feasible to decrease the amount of transfat if the companies refining edible oil demonstrate greater awareness and if the relevant government agencies enhance their supervision.

Similar studies have been conducted in various countries, including China and India, where transfats were discovered to exceed the tolerable levels.

1521 sample tests

In the study, samples were collected from all eight divisions of the country. A total of 1,521 oil samples were collected from three markets (one urban and two rural) in each division and subjected to testing.

The researchers tested a total of 106 'composite' samples of edible oil, including 18 'composite' samples of branded soybean oil, 49 open oil samples from retail establishments, 11 (composite) palm oil brands, and 28 (composite) samples of open palm oil. The sampling period was between February-March and June-August 2021. Additionally, samples were collected from five factories. The collected samples underwent testing at the Independent University (IUB) laboratory.

An article presenting the results of this research was published on January 7 in Food Chemistry Advances, an international science journal. According to the researchers, this is the first comprehensive study on the quality of edible oil in the country.

High in soybeans

Out of the 18 'composite' samples of bottled soybean oil, 12 were discovered to have transfats exceeding acceptable levels. Transfats were also present in the remaining samples, albeit at lower levels. Similarly, for open drum soybean oil, 12 'composite' samples were found to have transfats above acceptable levels, while 37 were found to contain lower levels.

No palm oils were found to exceed acceptable levels of transfats. However, all samples were found to contain transfats, albeit at levels lower than the normal threshold.

In 2021, the Food Safety Authority introduced regulations to control trans fatty acids in food products, effective from 31 December, 2022, with a maximum level set at 2 per cent. However, the study found that overall, soybean oil samples contained transfats two to four times higher than the standard levels. The researchers have not disclosed the name of the company producing and marketing the oil.

Md Akhtar Mamun, Director of the Safe Food Authority's Food Purity Inspection and Judicial Proceedings Division, stated to Prothom Alo that they have not yet reviewed the research report and will be able to comment after doing so.

Monzur Morshed Ahmed, the principal scientific officer of Bangladesh Council of Industrial and Scientific Research, recently concluded his tenure as a member of the Safe Food Authority. During his time in the agency, he played a role in drafting the Transfat Control Regulations.

In a statement to Prothom Alo, Monzur Morshed Ahmed mentioned that he was aware of the research while he was with the organization, and the findings of this study influenced the formulation of regulations. He emphasised that all possible types of food must be regularly checked to determine the presence of transfats, but currently, the tests are not conducted in that manner.

Monzur Morshed Ahmed also noted that the risk of transfats is higher in dalda and food made from dalda than in edible oil.

What is transfat, why is it harmful?

Health experts assert that trans fat in food constitutes a harmful form of fat. It diminishes the levels of 'good' cholesterol in the blood while elevating the levels of 'bad' cholesterol. An excess of bad cholesterol in the bloodstream increases the risk of heart disease. Consequently, a high intake of trans fat raises the overall risk of heart disease.

Researchers further emphasise that the presence of trans fats not only occurs during the manufacturing process in factories but can also result from using the same oil repeatedly for frying food.

Demand for edible oil soaring

According to the Bangladesh Trade and Tariff Commission (BTTC), the country has an annual demand for approximately two million tonnes of edible oil. Out of this, 1.4 to 1.5 million tonnes of oil is imported, with about 70 per cent of the imported oil being palm oil and the remaining being soybean oil.

Based on the household income-expenditure survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the per capita consumption of edible oil in 2022 was around 31 grammes per day, compared to 27 grammes in 2016. This indicates a rise in the consumption of edible oil.

A director of an edible oil refining company in the country told Prothom Alo that they would take immediate action if they knew the details of what was found in the study regarding how trans fat increases. He emphasised that the oil refining systems in every major factory in Bangladesh operate on European technology, and trans fats are not expected to be high in those oils.

A senior official from another edible oil refining company stated that there is no risk of trans fats increasing during oil refining in modern factories. It would be beneficial for everyone if the government takes measures to engage in discussions with companies producing soybean oil with high levels of trans fats.

Higher death rates from heart disease

People can develop heart disease for various reasons, and one of them is trans fat. According to a BBS survey, approximately 224,000 people died from heart disease (heart attacks and related conditions) in the country in 2020. This makes heart disease the most common cause of death in the country.

Treatment for heart disease often comes with high costs, and many families find themselves having to sell assets to afford the necessary medical care for their loved ones. Unfortunately, for poor families, such treatments are often financially out of reach.

Professor Sohel Reza Chowdhury from the National Heart Foundation's Epidemiology and Research Department emphasized to Prothom Alo that trans fat is one of the leading causes of heart disease in the country. He stated that significantly reducing excessive trans fat intake could lead to a substantial decrease in premature mortality, benefitting both the health sector and public health spending.

He highlighted the need for edible oil-producing companies to modify their production processes to reduce trans fat and called for the Food Safety Authority to take responsibility in this regard.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition in Bangla, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat