By Flavia Nassaka
Dr. Ruth Aceng, the Director General at the Ministry of Health, is cautioning Ugandans to go slow on consuming processed foodstuffs.
She says as more people depend a lot on packed foods, they need to be aware that some of the processed foods include chemically-altered fats and sugars.
Processed foods are different from the matooke, potatoes, meat, or fish that you cook in your kitchen. They are mainly already prepared meals that we buy from the shop and either directly eat or simply microwave.
“That may be giving our bodies the wrong signals,” Aceng says.
She said some consumers do not take expiry date labels on packed products seriously and concentrate only on how the product appears.
“For some, as long as bread has not yet developed mold, its fine to consume but this is wrong. There is a reason that product has a sell by or expiry date warning,” she said.
She said contaminating kitchen surfaces and other handlers should be avoided, fruits and vegetables washed properly, and meats, including poultry, rinsed before cooking.
Aceng said, however, the most important food issue is getting the nutrients that the body needs every day right.
She said if humans do not get the right food our body processes suffer and our health declines. In case we get too much food, the body gets wrong instructions and we become overweight and are at risk of developing diabetes and other heart diseases.
Many researchers now believe that problems such as stroke, type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity and certain cancers are partly related to diet. While they used to believe that such diseases were caused by a single gene mutation, they are now generally attributing these conditions to a network of biological dysfunction. And the food we eat is an important factor in that dysfunction, in part because our diets lack the necessary balance of nutrients. Aceng was speaking to journalists as Uganda joined the rest of the world in marking the annual World Health Day on April 07.
This year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) focused the celebrations on food safety. It released a report showing that annually two million people die as a result of consuming unsafe food. The report further says food containing bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is responsible for over 200 diseases ranging from diarrhea to cancers. Statistics at the National Disease Control department at Uganda’s Ministry of Health seem to confirm WHO’s findings. About 1.3 million Ugandans are diagnosed with food borne diseases annually. In 2012 alone, 2 million Ugandans suffered from diarrhea, 182,370 suffered from typhoid, 111,664 suffered from dysentery, 5,232 suffered from cholera whereas 650 suffered from brucellosis. Recently, Kampala saw another outbreak of typhoid where more than 7000 people are said to have been affected.
Dr. Samson Muddu, a Mulago based nutritionist says food related problems are more serious than most people think adding that currently diarrhea, a food borne disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years of age yet much of it is preventable.
He says some of these food borne illnesses are coming with globalisation as some of the foods get contaminated in the process of transportation. He said food could get contaminated on the farm or due to an error by a food producer in one country and affect seriously the health of consumers on another side of the world.
Muddu said dealing with the issue of ingredients is tricky for the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) which has to approve all the packed foods. He said, for example, pizza may be prepared in Uganda but its ingredients may be imported from Italy. He said, therefore, it is important for local food standards to be consistent with the international ones.
He pointed out that some bacteria, in small amounts, are not harmful to most healthy adults because the human body is equipped to fight them off but trouble begins when certain bacteria and harmful pathogens multiply and spread as happens when food is mishandled.
How to stay safe
Contaminated foods may not look, taste or smell any different from foods that are safe to eat. Muddu says the only way to counter challenges to do with food safety is to change our approach from reactive to preventive efforts, including requiring food production facilities to have a Hazard Analysis Plan and Risk-Based Assessment for foods transported from one area to another.
“With the complexity of the food chain, it’s very hard to trace and recall contaminated products,” he said, “so safety of most foods can’t be guaranteed.”