Nutritional navigation: UAE eyes ‘virtual elimination’ of trans fats and sets ambitious salt reduction targets
The UAE’s National Nutrition Strategy 2022 -2030 announced by the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) in late 2022 has broader public health targets including the reduction of stunting and overweight in children under five years of age, reducing anaemia in women by 50%, as well as halting the rise in obesity in children and both obesity and diabetes in adults.
Although the strategy also includes more direct healthcare and educational approaches such as micronutrient supplementation, nutritional education, growth monitoring programmes and so on, it is clear that the ministry intends to tackle these targets from the source of nutrition i.e. the food system.
“To achieve the targets laid out in this strategy, it is essential to establish sustainable, resilient food systems for healthy diets,” MoHAP Health Promotion Department Director Nouf Khamis Al Ali stated at a high-level government panel discussing the strategy.
“To do this, some of the planned approaches include targeting trans fat elimination and food reformulation, as well as implementing food taxes and subsidies.”
The UAE previously announced a complete ban on trans fats by 2023 several years back, but this has since been revised to be ‘more in line’ with World Health Organisation best practices which is to focus on industrially-produced trans fats elimination.
According to the strategy’s specific nutritional targets, the aim by 2030 is to ‘virtually eliminate industrial trans fats from the food supply’, by implementing mandatory limits for all food products in accordance with the WHO’s recommendation of a 2% maximum.
According to government data, at present a maximum of 5% trans fats are currently still allowed in food products, but this number will be gradually reduced over the next few years under this strategy to reach ‘virtual elimination’, particularly looking at food categories in which trans fats are commonly found including snacks, bakery and fried foods.
Another major area of focus of the strategy as part of the reformulation target will be to reduce the average salt intake by 30%.
“Food manufacturers in the UAE have already been cutting down salt content in products such as bread, and MoHAP will be working with the industry to set timelines for the reformulation and reduction of salt as well as trans fats and sugar in food products moving forward,” Al Ali said.
“It is important to proceed with [these reformulation initiatives] in a manner that will not negatively impact businesses, [particularly] considering the taste aspect, as salt and sugar are essential to maintain both the taste and quality of food products.”
One other aspect the strategy will be looking at controlling is the advertising of food products considered unhealthy to children, making sure to include online advertising as a component of implementation to keep up with the times.
“The WHO recommends that the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages be regulated via proper legislation,” Al Ali added.
“MoHAP is analysing this in more detail to determine the areas for prioritisation – but there are likely to be laws that look at the regulation of social media marketing as well.”
Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre Community Health Department Director Dr Mariam Al Wahidi added that at this stage the focus will be to first prioritise children.
“The plan is to start with advertisements that focus on children, and then move on to consumers in other age categories,” she said.
“Advertising today is very easy with online platforms, and whilst we have already worked on specifications for tobacco ads to ensure these are controlled, we must now work on ads that promote unhealthy foods to ensure these are controlled as well.”