BY JOSEPHINE AGBONKHESE
The first female graduate of Microbiology ever produced by the University of Ife (in 1972), Dolapo Coker was in fact one of the only two pioneer students of that department. A woman of many firsts, she was also the first female National President of the Nigeria Institute of Food Science & Technology.
Coker who holds a MSc in Food Science & Nutrition from the University of Reading, England, trained and worked with the Food & Drug Administration of the United States of America, was a Research Scientist at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research in Lagos, worked with the Food & Drug Administration of Nigeria (now NAFDAC) in various capacities and then retired as a Federal Director from the Federal Ministry of Health.
The internationally recognized Nutrition Consultant turned 70 on September 9th and in this interview, she speaks about nutritional facts commonly misconstrued, her two books ‘The Buffet Table’ and ‘It Was Grace’; and also reminisces on the old Lagos in which she was born and bred.
What inspired The Buffet Table?
I’ve written on nutrition, wellness and wellbeing for many years for The Lagoon, a magazine published regularly by The Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, Lagos. Each time my article is published, people seem interested and always express their desire to know more.
So, I thought I should put my knowledge into a book so it can be beneficial to everybody. I thus had it in mind that for my 70th birthday, I would present the book The Buffet Table; which I did last Sunday at my birthday party in Lagos.
You know, at the buffet table, everybody takes and eats whatever they want. But I believe that anyone who is well-informed stands the chance of eating right. Proceeds of the book will be put into a trust fund in the care of my church, The Cathedral Church, for the welfare of the physically challenged. I am on the panel of the church’s social welfare service unit and I see that the physically challenged are not cared for by government.
I want to help them realize their life ambitions. The second book, ‘It Was Grace’, is a book of testimonies and contains stories of near-death experiences that I passed through, which could have stopped me from seeing 70. The book was my take away at the birthday party.
How has life been these past 70 years?
It has not always been easy. I lost my husband very early (in my late 30s) and so, I have been a single-parent with three children; two boys and a girl. They are all married with children now. My daughter even turned 33 a few weeks ago. It was not easy but faith led me on. God has been very interesting in my life.
Let us talk about foods; there are conflicting opinions about foods to the extent that people with no medical condition whatsoever are also advised to avoid certain foods; how does one know which to avoid?
When I give talk on nutrition anywhere, I let people know there is no good or bad food. Every food has its good but the bad part is when you have too much of it. So, the watchword is moderation. For example, we all say water is best and we must drink it once we wake up every day. But do you know that too much of water also means trouble?
You will feel uncomfortable and might even get to a stage of getting dizzy because you have over-diluted everything in you. You are therefore bloated and uncomfortable.
Aside that, what other health implication?
You eat food, including drinks, and your food is being metabolized to be absorbed by the body. When you have water with it, this aids the rate of metabolism. But when you now have more than enough water, this excess is going to further dilute what you have taken in, sit inside you and then give you unnecessary weight. I’m not talking about you putting on fat but about you becoming heavy. And then you now start going to the bathroom more than you need to. Why are you over-working your system? So, you see, moderation is key.
For example, I gave a talk at an international symposium about two years ago which was organized by the Nigerian Breweries. My speech was on beer and the misconception surrounding it which says beer gives big belle. That’s not true because if there is no moderation in anything, even the so-called juice, malt and minerals you drink, there will be problem.
If you take four bottles of let us say Fanta, you are over-doing it and it’s going to build fat in your body, same way your four bottles of beer, malt, etc. will bring you fat. Everything must have moderation. Besides, beer is made from natural things such as cereal, barley and hops, and these are organic things. So, they are just like food. It is when you drink too much of them that you invite trouble.
Do you drink beer?
Yes, I drink beer but in moderation too. I take all brands of beer.
What about the alcohol in them?
I know my limits as an individual. For example, I usually mix my beer with soft drinks because soft drinks are too sweet for my liking. So, I’d rather go for any beer that is bitter. In fact, the more bitter the better.
But isn’t that sinful for a Christian who is actively engaged in church activities like yourself?
Do Christians not take wine? Does wine not have alcohol? Every wine does. It is fruit of the vine that is used to make wine. Wine is typically fermented and thus, has alcohol. Though, the percentage of alcohol depends on the stage of fermentation.
Let me tell you, anything that is called fruit wine is not wine but fruit drink. Go Google the meaning of wine and you’ll see it is something that is fermented and must have alcohol. So, all these concoctions that they call fruit wine, non-alcoholic wines, etc., are not wine and should not be called wine at all. In fact, I run away from them because they are concoctions. That’s why you see some of them are blue, green, etc.
All those drinks they call fruit juices, does it ever occur to you that each pack has the same taste from year to year? But when you buy two oranges and eat them, do you not notice they both taste differently? So how come these packaged so-called “pure juice” you buy are forever the same taste? As a food scientist though, I know what went wrong; that is, what was done to make them taste the same. So, I wouldn’t patronize them. I either blend my own juice or preferably, eat my fruits like that for benefits of the roughages. I am not saying we should not patronize these drinks, but it is however important that we are careful about the amount we take in.
Okay, back to beer; are you saying there is nothing indecent about a decently-dressed woman being seen with a bottle of beer right in front of her table in public?
There is nothing indecent about it. It’s a drink! But it becomes indecent when drink three, four, five bottles and become a nuisance, whether as a man or a woman. I had an aunty-in-law who died about three years ago at age 100. Even at her 100th year birthday party, she was drinking her beer and she was a staunch Christian. She never for one day staggered, how much more become a nuisance because she knew her limits and understood that the drink was good for her. I, for example, eat chocolate, ice cream and desserts. In fact, I must have a slice of cake every day and I even bake and keep in the fridge to enable me eat cake every day. But yet, I am well. Moderation is the word.
You retired from NAFDAC as a Director; how come the agency focuses on drug than food?
This is a question I wouldn’t like to answer. It is a very unfortunate situation and that’s because there is an imbalance; there is a belief that the head of NAFDAC must be a Pharmacist. I do not know why but they (Pharmacists) have adopted a superiority position over the food scientist. I will address this question because I believe I am free to talk about this now. In fact, in developed countries, food scientist, nutritionists and dieticians are part of the medical team that go round hospitals on ward round to give advice. A lot of things are going wrong in this country.
I say it anywhere and any day, that food is primary healthcare. This is because if you know the right food to eat and the amount to take, you won’t even need any drug; not even supplements. If I want calcium, I cook my soup with crabs. I am setting up a snailery in my garden right now because snails are very good. Crayfish too are so powerful that I had to teach my children never to joke with them.
In fact, I started feeding them Ewedu cooked with crayfish and semolina once they were four-month-old and as parents abroad today, they do the same for their children. When people know what to eat and the amount, they are less likely to fall ill and won’t need drugs in the first place because it is cheaper to buy food than drugs.
You were born and raised in Lagos; what do you miss about old Lagos?
Our house is just three minutes away from Tinubu Square in Lagos Island. The old Lagos was a lot different from what we have today. Now it is over-crowded and this is not good for development. Lagos has become very dirty.
When we were growing up, we grew up with government looking after the facilities. We grew up being trained in cleanliness both at home and in schools. As far back as 1956, my mother, Mrs Gibson Roberts, won a shield for the cleanest house in Lagos. That was still British Colony, though, but the fact remains that the British taught us cleanliness. Those days, you cannot drop a piece of paper on the floor of the streets.
I attended Anglican Girls School and we were taught never to litter the ground; till today, I find it difficult to toss out paper or any other thing at all, from my car. I drop them on the floor of my car and when I get home, I dispose them. The gutters in those days were so clean that we used to make paper boats and do competition with them in the gutter. They were so clean that we could see their bottoms. But now, gutters are the dumping grounds for refuse and there is no more competition for any clean home. The health inspectors (Wole Wole) are no longer seen. These make people like us, born and bred in Lagos, very sad. It is so sad but what we need are strong, descent leaders who have a sense of purpose and who can put their foot down to say, lets us not let Lagos spoil.
How possible can that be with the population right now?
Everything is do-able if there is an objective. The population of China is multiple of ours but it is still not as filthy as we see in Lagos now. As of today in Lagos, the median of the express roads and all the dual carriage ways are dumping grounds for garbage. This is an eyesore.
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