Transformer oil; Transforming Street Fast Food
Street fast food is truly delicious, but when fried in “transformer oil” it may become a carcinogen (cancer-causing). Let me tell you about my experience in Lagos.
My friend and I once went to Lagos Island market without having breakfast. Hunger pangs drove us to buy puff puff, from a woman also selling Akara, and Plantain chips — common street fast food sold as snacks on street corners in Nigeria. This street food may be unhealthy but remain a favourite for many. Merely perceiving the aroma made me drool. Until I noticed two things:
- Separate kegs of oil under the table near me; each half full
- A transformer down the road.
I paused for a minute wondering why the vendor used both oils halfway. Were they mixed?
Street Transformer; Street Food
Transformer oil or Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are industrially made chemicals manufactured from 1929 until 1979. They were banned in the United States due to their toxicity and exposure-related health effects. However, PCBs are still being used in transformers and electrical equipment found in many African countries. It has no smell/taste, similar viscosity, and physical attributes to common vegetable oils.
Toxic but Free
Since 2011, some food vendors in Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria, and other African countries have been using transformer oil for cooking. It is inexpensive and occasionally even free if they can vandalize transformers and cause the oil used as a coolant or lubricant to leak. Many sellers mix transformer oil with vegetable oil to increase profits due to inflation and other economic pressures.
Carcinogen; Transforming Health
Unfortunately, PCBs are extremely harmful and can cause non-communicable diseases like cancer. It also negatively affects the immune, nervous and endocrine systems. Moreover, because it can be passed from mother to child through the placenta or breast milk and cause birth abnormalities, development impairment, damage to the developing brain, and increased susceptibility to diseases, pregnant women and nursing mothers are particularly vulnerable.
What You Can Do
Finally, street food is readily available and might be difficult to ignore, but before buying, make sure the vendor is trustworthy, or, like me (after my experience at Lagos Island Market) avoid it altogether. You can have snacks handy or make your own fried snack at home.
Speak to one of our registered dietitians to learn more about healthy cooking, and eating methods that promote a healthy and sustainable lifestyle!