Widely available foods may pose major health risk in Kyrgyzstan


A new report from WHO shows that high levels of trans fat and sodium are frequently present in the most commonly available street food in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, has a rich culture of market and street food. Street food from bazaars and markets is abundant, and has historically been an important source of nourishment for the population. These markets have been critical in ensuring access to fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, at the same time, some of the ready-to-eat foods that are most commonly available might be contributing to poor health among those who consume them on a regular basis.

It has been shown consistently that industrially produced trans fat and sodium contribute to increasing the risk for cardiovascular diseases. These diseases are the leading cause of death in Kyrgyzstan, accounting for 49% of all deaths.

The analysis of the food available in markets all over the city has given important insight into its composition and its possible contribution to nutritional intake.

Greater frequency of NCDs

Overall, Kyrgyzstan is facing a growing burden of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Dietary risk factors such as excess sodium intake are playing an important role in this increase. As a result, there is considerable urgency to improve the nutritional composition of the foods commonly available in Bishkek.

Previous research on street food mainly addressed food safety and disregarded questions of nutritional contribution to diets. The Kyrgyzstan report presents new findings that can be used in promoting access to affordable, nutritious street foods, and points towards some regulatory action. This is an essential aspect of preventing NCDs and associated health disparities in major cities across the WHO European Region.

Too salty

Most dietary intake of sodium is from salt added during the preparation and cooking of food or from processed food.

The analysis of street food found that street vendors use excess salt when preparing homemade food, and that excess salt is also present in many industrial products. For example, a single serving of a traditional noodle dish contained 1980 mg of sodium – 99% of the maximum recommended daily intake in a single portion.

170% of daily maximum trans-fat intake in 1 serving

Cooking fats and shortening containing industrially produced trans fat are widely used in food sold in the markets of Bishkek. The study found that a serving of industrially produced wafers contained 170% of the recommended maximum daily intake of trans fat, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

WHO is advocating for the complete elimination of industrially produced trans fats from the global food supply.

Soft drinks are most common

Many types of beverages are sold in the streets, but soft drinks are the most common; they are found at over 50% of all vending sites selling beverages. This is a concern in view of the high sugar content of soft drinks, which is known to be the main source of added sugar in the diet – in particular for children and adolescents.

Added sugar contributes to excess energy intake and weight gain, another risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.

What needs to be done

The report concludes that improvement of the nutritional quality of street food is required. At the same time, it is important to protect the cultural role that market vendors play in maintaining traditional diets and providing access to foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Limiting the content of salt and trans fat in street foods could be strategic a starting point. So could promoting the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables while limiting the availability of sugary soft drinks, particularly in and around schools.

Details on report

The WHO report presents the results of a cross-sectional study conducted in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as part of the WHO FEEDCities project. It supports the implementation of the WHO European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020 by providing information for achieving objectives such as creating healthy food and drink environments and extending surveillance, monitoring, evaluation and research.

The study was made possible by funding from the Government of the Russian Federation within the context of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.

Implementation of the study was kindly facilitated by the WHO Country Office in Kyrgyzstan and the Ministry of Health in Kyrgyzstan in the context of a biennial collaborative agreement.