Studies have confirmed that reusing cooking oil can cause heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases, and experts of late claim that these conditions are on the rise in the country. However, some food vendors and consumers say they are unaware of the health risks of using unhealthy, reheated cooking oil to prepare food. ANGELA ONWUZOO reports

Mr. Vitalis Ibekwe and two of his four children love to eat porridge and bean cake popularly known as ‘Akara’ for dinner every night. This has been his favorite food for years.

Security staff having a special client at Palm Groove bus stand, Lagos, said he grew up loving eating ‘Akara’ when he went to live with one of his uncles in Aba, Abia state, whose wife was in the frying business and selling Akara.

The Imo State Indian told PUNCH HealthWise that he had been eating Akara for more than 25 years without caring about the type of cooking oil used to prepare it.

However, he told our correspondent that he was aware that non-communicable diseases such as stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, kidney failure and cancer were on the rise in Nigeria.

However, the father of four said he was unaware that reusing cooking oil in food preparation such as frying Akara, yams and potatoes could predispose anyone to any of these diseases.

The 48-year-old security officer said: “I love Akara very much and enjoy having him with porridge at night. I started to like him when I was young. When I was 15 years old, I went to live with one of my maternal uncles and his wife in Aba.

“My uncle’s wife, Aunt Vero, was selling Akara at the popular Ariaria market junction in Aba, Abia State. So, I was helping her in the business at the time.

“Every morning before going to school, I will go and help her sell the Akara while she is busy frying. She also fried yams and potatoes along with the Akara.

“We had many clients from different classes and fields. Commercial bus drivers and okada passengers patronize us a lot. Schoolchildren were also our regular customers. They love the taste of Aunt Vero’s Akara.

“We had a woman a few meters from our store who was making porridge. Her business complemented ours. So when the customers finished buying Akara from us, they will go to the woman to buy porridge to eat with Akara.”

According to him, people enjoy shopping for Akara in the morning and at night, which sometimes costs them sleepless nights to prepare to meet the demand of their customers.

“At 6:30 am, our akara is ready. I usually eat Akara with porridge, which we usually call Akamu in Igbo language for breakfast before going to school.

“So when I was a teenager, Akara used to be my breakfast. Even after eating a few amounts with porridge at the store, I’ll take some back to school to share with my friends. He had a lot of friends in high school because he always brought Akara to school.

“Even some of my teachers usually give me the money a day before to buy Akara for them when they come to school the next day.

“This is how I grew up loving Akara to date and two of my children enjoy eating it too. I buy it for him every night at the bus stop in Palm Groove when I get home from work. I have a client there and he prepares it very well. His Akara tastes like Aunt Vero’s,” Ibekwe recounted.

On reusing cooking oil for frying Akara, he said, “Aunt Vero didn’t throw away her oil after reusing it many times. Instead, she added a new one to the reused one. Sometimes she helped her do that.

“We weren’t the only ones who did it. People are still doing it. During the more than 10 years that I lived with them and helped her in the business, she did not discard her cooking oil for a day.

“I have also not seen people who are in the business of frying Akara, potatoes and yams throwing away their oil after multiple reuses.

“Even if the oil turns dark and thick like motor oil, they will go ahead and use it up by adding new ones to it. I am not aware that reusing cooking oil for frying food and other food products is harmful to health. I am also not aware that overheating cooking oil can cause health problems.”

540,000 deaths recorded each year from trans fats – WHO

The World Health Organization says there is evidence that heating and frying oil at high temperatures leads to increased concentrations of trans fats.

According to the WHO, trans fats increase the risk of heart disease and death from heart disease by 28 percent.

“On average, the level of trans fat has been found to increase by 3.67g/100g after heating and 3.57g/100g after frying.

“Approximately 540,000 deaths each year can be attributed to the intake of industrially produced trans fatty acids.

“High consumption of trans fats increases the risk of death from any cause by 34%, deaths from coronary heart disease by 28%, and coronary heart disease by 21%.

“This is probably due to the effect on lipid levels: trans fats increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels while lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Trans fats have no known health benefits,” the WHO said.

Ms. Blessing Ndifereke also shared a similar experience with PUNCH HealthWise in which she bought fried fish, Akara and potatoes for her children from roadside food vendors without worrying about the safety of the cooking oil used to prepare them.

The 37-year-old shopkeeper and mother of three said: “Honestly, my sister, I didn’t know that reusing cooking oil over and over again is bad for your health.

“I have been buying akara, potatoes and fish for my children for a long time without worrying about the oil they used to fry them. And many people are in business now. Oil safety never crossed my mind. I will be much more careful now that you have made it known to me.”

Consumers and food vendors are unaware of the health risks of trans fats

Some consumers and food vendors in the Akara frying, yam, potato, fish, meat and puff pastry business who spoke to our correspondent appear to be unaware of the health risks associated with overheating and reusing cooking oil in the food preparation.

PUNCH HealthWise findings show that the Akara, potato, yam, puff-puff, bun, fish and meat frying business is thriving in the country with many of the food vendors engaging in harmful practices that undermine the health of consumers.

One such harmful practice according to PUNCH HealthWise research is reusing cooking oil multiple times, which experts say could lead to cardiovascular disease, especially heart attack.

Our correspondent observed that even the youngsters are now in the business of frying Akara, potatoes and others for a livelihood.

They mainly operate in open places such as parking lots, bus stops, intersections, and streets, and many people frequent them without thinking about safety or health.

PUNCH HealthWise concluded that discarding vegetable oil after reusing it many times is strange for food vendors.

Many of them told our correspondent that it would be virtually impossible for them to engage in the practice of disposing of their cooking oils without reusing them considering the cost.