Ntate Motaung, not the one from Makhulong a Matala radio programme each Sunday, would peddle his bicycle from one school to another, delivering freshly cooked makoenya (fat cakes). His recipe still stands out as the best there has ever been. Ask anyone who has had a privilege to taste the old man’s secret recipe. His were not oily and had this texture that was difficult to ignore. Tea-break meant a race to Ntate Motaung’s delicious fat-cakes.

We used to buy through the mesh-wire fence since we were not allowed to go outside the school premises unless it was by permission. So, taller and stronger boys would buy first, being able to reach out to the waiting hand of Ntate Motaung. Shoving and pushing was the way the stronger got to buy first. You would be lucky to get away with some as this delicacy as it was highly competitive bid to get some. For us, shorter and smaller boys, shouting at the top of your voice could only be your chance to grab an old man’s attention to your firmly held coins to buy; “Tau, Tau ke kopa a leshome” (Kindly pass me ten fat-cakes).

If you were lucky, he would take pity on you and give you the ten you have asked for. As for the not so fortunate, it meant having to buy from other vendors whose products were oily and, in many cases, had this rancid smell. Come to think of it, makoenya, have been part of our culture for many years now and to this day, many people still indulge themselves on them from time to time.

What are makoenya anyway? A simple dough deep-fried in oil. The main ingredients to prepare this meal are: wheat-flour, some salt, sugar, warm water, instant yeast. These are mixed together until a soft dough is achieved. The mixture is normally covered, placed somewhere warm until it has risen twice its original size. By then, we know the dough is ready to be made into ball-shaped bread called makoenya, magwinya, vetkoek or simply fat-cakes. These ball-shaped doughs are then deep-fried in a bubbling vegetable oil until they are crispy and golden brown, while simultaneously turning to avoid them being charred or burned.

By now the aroma from makoenya will “call” a child from play drooling and begging for some. Truly, makoenya have been with us for as long as our memory could recall. But makoenya are made of ingredients that have been found to be toxic to our health even though their consumption could be said to be very innocent. Are they as innocent as we would like to believe? Or their contribution to our ailing nation is so miniscule to even bother to mention them? First, we should look into what goes into the making of these delicious, innocent but yet dubious product.

For the benefit of our discussion, let us ignore the perils of sugar that goes into the mixture, and turn a blind eye to the very product that makes makoenya: the highly processed white-flour. We know that these are very detrimental to our health in so many ways. They mess up our metabolism, promote different types of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, obesity and dental cavities, to name but a few. But our interest lies on the ingredient that cook our seemingly benevolent fat-cakes – the trans-fat oils, cloaked and christened vegetable oils. What these oils and why should we be wary of them?

These are edible oils extracted from plants instead of animals. The reason why they are popular is because they are cheap to make. But here is the catch, these vegetable oils are also very unstable and prone to oxidation (rust). Oxidation is a form of chemical damage that all living matter is subject to, just like rust on iron when it is exposed to air and water. To test this theory, cut an apple in half, and leave it there for some minutes, you will appreciate just how quickly these chemical reactions take place.

So, in the body, excessive oxidation equals inflammation and damage to cellular structures and our DNA. This is also suspected to be a major mechanism of ageing. Makoenya, from the different places in which we purchase them, have been cooked by these oils that have undergone heat and chemical processing. When these oils are extracted and used to cook makoenya, they represent one of the major toxins in our food supply. The worst part of these oils is that, from the vendors we regularly buy from, they have been poorly stored (being left out in warm kitchen environment for months) and heating and reheating them make these highly susceptible oils to go rancid.

Most makoenya vendors, large and small, would deep-fry and sauté food in them, reusing the oil over and over, further causing damage to it. Which are these heinous oils that you should be careful not to ingest for the obvious reason of preserving your health? The following are the ominous oils to be careful not to use; sunflower, canola, safflower, rapseed, soybean, corn, vegetable, rice-bran, peanut and grapeseed oils.

We are faced with illnesses at every corner and most of which are from the food that we have lived with for so many years that when we do get sick, we hardly ever suspect it is because of the very same food that we have held in high esteem. If you were to tell people that they are sick because of consumption of makoenya, surely Mohlomi Mental Hospital will be the first place you are to be shipped to. We are living in a fast-moving area of scientific research and new potential consequences of over consumption these highly processed oils are being proposed and tested quickly.

In his book, The Good Fat Guide, David Gillespie noted at least eleven risks we take every time we consume food cooked, deep-fried or sautéed in these oils. He showed that these oils have been shown to cause cancer because they interfere with our DNA switch that tell our cells to replicate or to die due to their oxidative properties. High consumption of these oils also causes childhood cancer. This is the cancer that is said to be diagnosed before the child turns fourteen. The oil also helps fructose to cause you heart disease because consuming too much fructose compels our liver to turn it into cholesterol which is in turn oxidised easily in the presence of trans-fats.

Blindness has also been noted to be partly caused by these oils. Gillespie shows that, “macular degeneration is caused by waste accumulating in our eyes, which happens if there is more” trans fats in our diet. Think of the time you buy makoenya from ‘Mamosali (a popular name for a lady vendor). Parkinson disease has also been seen to be on the rise and thanks to the frequent use of trans fats. It has been noted that a direct consumption or inhalation of the toxic oils is destructive to the neurons that control our ability to move. The sad part of this is that, the damaged neurons are not replaceable once destroyed.

If we lose enough of them, then Parkinson’s disease ensues into a progressive loss of motor control of our body. More and more people have their joints replaced due to rheumatoid arthritis. This is an autoimmune disease by our own immune system attacking parts of our body. This also has been shown to be driven mostly by consumption of trans fats driving the inflammation response to our immune system. Other diseases that have been tightly linked to the high consumption of trans fats are reduced cognitive ability, sterilisation in men, allergies and asthma, multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis.

If these are not good reasons enough to convince you to stop consuming processed seed oils, then I do not know what will.
Makoenya are delicious, especially during this rainy season. A cup of coffee in hand to down the oily dough is enough to leave your mouth watering for more. But a word of caution here. Makoenya have been deep-friend in toxic oils that could leave you sick. Prevention, as Gillespie noted, is clearly the key to changing a future full of untimely death from horrible chronic disease. Unfortunately, he said, those charged with advising us are blind to the real cause of these lethal epidemics.

“Worse than that, they are frequently the people responsible for us consuming the oils in the first place.” Be assured, almost everybody you know selling fried food – from corner takeaways right through to the most expensive restaurant – will be frying it in the cheapest vegetable or seed oil they can find.

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