30 January 2013

Uganda: Is That 'Low-Fat' Food Label Genuine?

Over the years, the eating habits of many Ugandans have increasingly changed perhaps because of increased financial earnings, or an upsurge in the production of both locally made and imported consumables.

Another possible reason for the change is many Ugandans have increasingly become aware that their diet plays a significant role in their health.

Supermarkets, for instance, present a train of various consumables, neatly placed on shelves in a rather attractive way. These range from biscuits, juices, tinned foods, liquid and powdered milk and yoghurt, among many others.

To out-compete one another, companies have developed witty and attention-grabbing packages and phrases, for instance; 'cholesterol-free', 'sugar-free', 'fat-free', 'contains natural flavours' and 'natural honey'.

Obviously, these catch-phrases create the illusion that the products are harmless to one's health and, therefore, worth taking home. But how genuine are these products regarding what they purport to have or not to have?

Are these products genuine?

According to Agnes Bako, a nutritionist at the Ministry of Health, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) is entrusted with the responsibility to ensure and set manufacturing standards for both local and imported products. UNBS should also ensure that the standards are enforced and followed by the manufacturers.

She, however, warns that although some products adhere to the set guidelines, they not genuine - they do not have the contents indicated on the labels.

Unfortunately, Bako adds, ordinary consumers cannot easily detect the authenticity of the contents they consume. "Only UNBS can establish whether a given product has what it claims to have through laboratory analysis," she says.

Peter Rukundo, a lecturer at Kyambogo University and a research fellow in nutrition, says product labels are a big problem in Uganda, as most are falsehoods.

Any genuine consumable product should have clear nutritional information comprising the nutritional contents of the types and amount of ingredients used in its production.

Somehow, if a label has that information, then a vigilant consumer can easily relate the taste with the information.

Not many products in Uganda, Rukundo observes, have natural ingredients. "Some of those that claim to contain 100% natural ingredients or flavours, mix up the natural with industrially manufactured additives, but still have labels like '100% mango juice'."

He adds that there are 11 to 12 product development cycles. "By the time a product is released on the market, it should have a quality assurance certification. In the case of Uganda, it should be from UNBS.

Unfortunately, most products on the Ugandan market, Rukundo notes, do not move beyond even the first four steps, meaning they are not certified, so they lack the specified quality standards.

Duplicity and fake packaging materials:

Apart from the duplicity of the labels, Rukundo notes that even the quality of packaging materials is wanting. "It is common to find a packaging material, such as paper, getting soaked up by the content," he says. This is an indication that the paper material should not have been used or is a poor quality.

"Some supermarkets have mineral water bottles that have lost their shape. This is a sign that the bottles are made of poor quality plastic, which may result in chemical reactions. In the long-run, even the water loses its taste," Rukundo adds.

Where is the problem coming from?

Rukundo blames the proliferation of products with fake labels on lack of constant enforceability of set laws and standards.

"For example, there are so many backyard-made products such as yoghurt on the shelves of many supermarkets. Anybody can take a product to a supermarket and it is sold without certification," Rukundo says.

Libralisation of the economy, he adds, is also fuelling the abuse of food and beverage labels in a bid to fit into the stiff competition in the ever-growing Ugandan food industry.

Understandably, the Government wants the locals to start businesses and survive, but also wants to widen its tax base, which weakens the enforceability of standards and policies.

Label gimmicks have largely gone on because UNBS has not done enough in its quality assurance mandate to carry out inspections to establish whether the content on the labels is a true reflection of the actual product

Effects of counterfeit products:

Due to the duplicitous labels, most people inadvertently, for instance, consume high levels of cholesterol or high sugar products.

According to Vincent Sekajja, a nutritionist, most people know that all cholesterol is bad. "However, there is good and bad cholesterol in the body," he says,

Sekajja adds that good cholesterol, which is synthesised into the body by the liver, is vital in the development of the brain cells and maintaining them.

"Good cholesterol also insulates the nervous cells of the brain and helps in providing the structure of cell membranes," Sekajja explains.

On the other hand, he notes, bad cholesterol, which is largely a result of over consumption of animal fats, does not dissolve or get broken down. Instead it moves along with the proteins until it is absorbed in the body system.

Consequently, it clogs the blood vessels right from the heart, thus narrowing them down. This, he says, makes the heart struggle to pump blood to other parts of the body, resulting in complications such as high blood pressure.

Sekajja says high sugar consumption can result in diabetes. This comes about when the body fails to generate insulin to break down the sugar into energy, or due to a presence of too much sugar that the insulin cannot break down.

He notes that sugar in the body does not only come from the one we drink in beverages, but also from foods such as bananas. In addition, eating a diet high in refined sugars can cause obesity.

To avert the onset of high blood pressure and diabetes, Sekajja advises, the body should be kept active by exercising.

Exercises, he says, are crucial in breaking down fats into energy.

He emphasises that high fat levels inhibit proper metabolism (sugar breakdown). That is why most overweight people, especially those with high blood pressure, in most cases suffer from diabetes.

How can the consumer be protected?

Supermarkets, Rukundo advises, should have nutritionists or quality assurance managers approved by UNBS to ensure that all products stocked meet the standards and carry right labels with clear nutritional content.

In addition to the need to have quality assurance decentralised, he argues that other bodies, apart from UNBS, should be established to monitor product development and label authenticity.

Consumer vigilance, Rukundo advises, should increase. Consumers should first understand the nutritional content of what they are going to consume and ascertain if the product is certified.

He concludes that the safety of any manufactured products we eat is not guaranteed. If those products lack UNBS certification, at the end of the day, the consumer is the end-sufferer.

UNBS speaks out:

According to the UNBS deputy spokesperson, Sylvia Kirabo, whereas it is their responsibility to enforce quality assurance on the market, every Ugandan should join this fight.

"Most of the fake products are manufactured in hideouts and some Ugandans know about this. Let them come out and tell us through our toll free line (0800133133) so that we can follow up the culprits. The dangers of a fake product affect everyone," she observes.

Kirabo says UNBS has, on a number of occasions, closed down reported businesses found to be operating contrary to the standards, noting that although some proprietors change and adhere to the standards, others change location and go into hiding.

"A product that lacks a UNBS certification is suspect. Fake products on the market exist not because of UNBS negligence, but unscrupulous traders. It is difficult to follow down every single person wherever they are hiding, but we are following them," she adds.

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