Archive for January, 2007

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Front page in UK, no news in Singapore

January 31, 2007

When Harvard University researchers reported earlier this month that they found trans fats increased the risks of infertility, it made front page news in The Daily Express, “the world’s greatest newspaper” (this is how The Daily Express describes itself).

I learnt this the other evening from chatting on the telephone with Oliver Tickell, who runs the British anti-trans fats campaign, tfX.

Of course, there were also UK newspapers that buried the story in a small column on page 60. But Oliver tells me that the British media has overall been very supportive of the campaign to heighten consumer awareness about the dangers of trans fats.

Well, I cannot really complain that our local media is not supportive. Not when the ST Forum just published another of my letters today, about trans fat labelling in South Korea. But hey, some of you read about that first, right here on this blog.

But did the big story about trans fats and infertility make it to the Singapore MSM (main stream media)?

Admittedly, I don’t read the newspapers everyday so I could have missed the report. As far as I am aware, the news wasn’t reported here – until I mention it today at the bottom of my letter about trans fat labelling in South Korea.

So this piece of important news finally appeared in The Straits Times, summarised into one short sentence buried in a Forum Letter.

Click here to read more about trans fats, infertility and other birth-related problems on my website, www.stop-trans-fat.com.

The next short sentence summarised another recent news item about trans fats, or rather, about ‘No trans fat’. This is the report about interesterified fat, another strange new invention of the food industry, being possibly more harmful than trans fat. Again, some of you might have read about it first on this blog.

Back to infertility…

Harvard researchers reported on January 19 that a mere 2 percent increase in trans fat consumption could increase a woman’s risks of infertility by 70 percent or more!

That’s a very major risk coming from a very small amount of trans fats. To increase your risks of fertility, all you need to do is take 4 grams of trans fats – less than the amount that comes from a piece of fried chicken, cooked in hydrogenated oils, from a fast food restaurant.

Even though our newspapers have dedicated health pages – in fact, an entire health supplement every Wednesday in the case of The Straits Times – for some reason they cannot find the space to convey this major health risk.

Perhaps this is why our health authorities and medical experts, such as the chairman of the Singapore Heart Foundation, consider trans fats to be “a small problem”. They only read the local MSM?

For sure you will not learn about trans fats and infertility – or, for that matter, trans fats and lots of other health issues – on the Health Promotion Board’s website either. As of today, HPB Online still has that same, 700+ word article, All about trans fats which contains just two sentences about the effects of trans fats on the body. I quote:

Trans fat behaves like saturated fat in the body, raising low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) that increases your risk of coronary heart disease. In addition to raising “bad” cholestrol, trans fat also reduces the blood levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholestrol), which protects against heart disease.

Is that ALL that the HPB has to say about trans fats. Is that ALL it knows? If it knows more, why isn’t the HPB telling it?

In an email to me some weeks back, a friend wrote: People (like me) know more about transfat from reading the forum page than all the activities of HPB on this subject in the past 10 years!

I must invite him to read this blog too.

And hey! I just realised today is his birthday. Happy Birthday Pat 🙂

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One week of trans fats

January 30, 2007

Today, I mark the one week anniversary of this blog. This is a very small milestone. But hey, for a newbie like me, it’s an occasion to celebrate.

Another reason to celebrate is that I had a record 158 visits yesterday – more than double my previous high of 63. It is not a lot compared to what I imagine the more popular bloggers get. But, it has been beyond my expectations. Way, way beyond.

Although new to blogging, I had been building websites for many years. My first attempt was during the late 1990s. Back then, I was too cheapskate to purchase my own domain name (it probably cost more at that time too) and my website was http://www.singnet.com.sg/~seahss.

I built it with a program called Pagemill. I bet most of you have not heard of that! The site was not very nice looking. I did not even know how to resize my pictures and some of them were enormous!

The more serious attempt was in 2002, when I put up my personal website, www.richardseah.com. I had a pirated version of Adobe Golive 4.0, I learnt to use it by reading Learning Adobe Golive in 24 hours, and, before the 24 hours, I had a site going. I was quite pleased with the design too. Incidentally I have since switched to legitimate software, using Adobe GoLive CS2.

Then in 2005, I joined a web marketing programme called Site Built It. My friend who introduced it to me was making ‘big money’ through Google Ads, meaning she was earning a few hundred US dollars per month.

I thought I could do with some additional income and I identified with Site Build It business model, which emphasises delivering quality CONTENT rather than performing various tricks to draw visitors. Today, my friend is earning thousands per month and I still have a long, long way to go. But I really think Site Build It is great, at just US $299 per year. Do check it out.

The bottom line is this:

  • After 5 years, http://www.richardseah.com gets about 400-500 visitors per day. In fact, it was at that level after 3 years and had remained more or less stagnant.
  • After 2 years, my second website, www.art-photograph-gallery.com done with Site Build It now has about 200 visitors daily and the numbers are still increasing.

So you understand why I get excited when this blog received 158 visitors yesterday, after just one week!

My latest website, www.stop-trans-fat.com is doing well too, averaging more than 100 visits daily after less than one month. The highest was 320 visitors, after Mr Wang Says So mentioned the site on his blog.

That was when I decided to start this blog. In fact, I re-started it. Back in September 2005, I started a similar blog on blogspot but left it idle after just three posts (and a few spam comments).

I really must thank Mr Wang for his inspiration to get me started again.

And to YCK, saltwetfish, kenwahfu, Molly and others who added more than their 2 cents worth to keep the discussion alive with their comments, as well as the many others who emailed me privately.

One email I’d like to mention. It came from a doctor, a medical specialist in a public hospital. He said that since he works in a government hospital, the less he says in public, the better. But privately, he said, he agrees with me wholeheartedly.

It is heartening to get such emails, although I wish people were less reluctant to speak up in public, especially when the Internet offers some degree of anonymity (spelling correct??).

Thanks, too, to intelligentsingaporean.wordpress.com and others for recommending some of my posts. You have all contributed greatly to my visitor traffic.

In all my years of putting up information on the Internet, I have never before felt so connected with my readers – and with fellow posters and the rest of the Internet community. Sure, I get an occasional email from visitors to my websites. It happens once every few months. But this past week I’ve had close to 20 emails already. Keep them coming and apologies if I sometimes fail to reply. I need to work and earn a living too.

So now I am beginning to understand the value of blogs, and what all the fuss and excitement is all about. I am a latecomer. But am glad I am here.

I bid you to welcome me to blogosphere as much as I regret to read that one of our most prominent contributors, Gayle Goh, has decided to leave.

I hope I will be here for some time yet. I have lots more to say and to share about trans fats and many other health issues.

Watch this space.

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Interested terrified fats?

January 29, 2007

Barely have consumers – and health authorities – woken up to the dangers of trans fats when we are now told of a new, possibly greater threat.

The new substance to watch out for is interesterified fat.

Huh?!?

First, let me tell you how I remember the spelling of this word – combine together “interest” and “terrified” but spell “terrified” with only one “r”.

Actually, it is made up of the words “inter” and the chemical term “esterified”, meaning “formed into ester”.

So what is this?

Basically, it is an attempt by food scientists to produce oils with “no trans fats”.

What they do is hydrogenate the oils fully. The oils become fully saturated and there are no trans fats left. But fully hydrogenated oil is hard and inedible. So the smart aleck scientists mix it with liquid oils and put it through other chemical processes to create a semi-solid grease like margarine and vegetable shortening.

Enough of the chemistry. The bottom line is this…

Early scientific reports – one of which was released about 10 days ago by joint-researchers from Malaysia (yeah! Malaysia boleh!) and the UK – suggest that interesterified fats are far more harmful than trans fats.

They were found to depress the level of HDL (good cholesterol) more than trans fats. They also raised blood glucose levels and depressed the level of insulin, suggesting that they could lead to diabetes.

So be extra careful of products labelled “No Trans Fat” especially when they contain fully hydrogenated oils.

Scientists who keep coming up with these strange, weird and terrifying stuffs never learn their lessons, do they? Or perhaps those who learn their lessons end up being jobless, because there are no more Frankenfoods for them to create.

Just stick to traditional foods that humans have been eating for thousands of years, and we will be all ok.

In the case of oils and fats, just stick to:

  • saturated fats like lard, butter, ghee, beef tallow, goose fat…. coconut oil and palm oil.
  • monounsaturated fats like olive, sesame, and peanut oils.

Note that:

  • Polyunsatured oils like corn, soybean, etc had not been traditionally used for cooking. Most were introduced only during the last century.
  • Canola, a monounsaturated fat widely touted as being the “healthiest oil” is another modern scientific invention, produced through genetic manipulation. To learn more, read this article titled The Great Con-nola.

I remember long long ago, in my early days of journalism, I wrote an article about a food company and had the chance to meet a food scientist. Off the record, I asked him, “Would it be accurate to say that the food scientist’s job is to minimise the harm rather than to maximise the benefits of processed foods?”

After a short pause, he nodded, “Yes”.

Longer, longer ago, when I was a teenager at pre-university, I half considered applying for a scholarship to study food science.

Glad I did not do that.

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Pork lard – successfully banished!

January 28, 2007

A friend took me to Chinatown the other day to eat what he considered “a very good wanton mee” – at the second level of the hawker centre behind Chinatown point. It was good. And, at $2 for quite a large serving, one cannot complain.

I had a minor grouse, however. Something was missing which would have made the noodles more delicious – PORK LARD. No need for a lot. Just a dash of it will do.

Many of us might have forgotten – or are too young to know – the time when wontan noodles came with pork lard. I was reminded of it only recently when I ate a plate in Johor Baru. That dash of pork lard made a difference.

And it occurred to me that pork lard, while not banned, has practically been banished from Singapore. The same with the other type of saturated fat – coconut milk and coconut oil.

It has become so difficult nowadays to find a hawker who fries char kway teow with pork lard. And so it has become so difficult to find a good char kway teow.

Anybody knows a good one, let me know. I had tried asking taxi drivers, especially those who spoke Teochew. The reply I usually get is, “Nowadays hard to find”.

Likewise, it has become hard to find a good bowl of laksa with that lemak flavour of rich coconut milk. Even at Katong, the laska does not seem to be as lemak as it used to be.

And it must have been decades since I last enjoyed a really nice, rich chendol.

I do know, however, of one place at sells youtiao fried in coconut oil. It’s at the market / hawker centre along Ang Mo Kio Ave 4 (Blk 160+ the one with a big carpark in front). Look for the stall with the long queue!

It shows how successful our health authorities have been in putting across the message that saturated fats are bad, bad, BAD!

But this is a misguided message. Saturated fats are not only delicious, but also beneficial to health in many ways. Among other things:

  • Saturated fats preserve the integrity of our cell walls. Our cell walls are supposed to be made up of 50 percent saturated fats. No thanks to the big push for switching to polyunsaturated oils, our cell walls have become weakened. And no thanks to trans fats, they have become distorted as well.
  • Saturated fats are needed for calcium absorption – which means that the calcium in all those low fat milks don’t get absorbed very well.
  • Saturated fats help the body to conserve and utilise beneficial Omega-3 fats.

And so on.

You can read more about the many benefits of saturated fats – and the reasons why they DO NOT cause heart disease and cancer – at my website, www.stop-trans-fat.com.

Having so successfully banished saturated fats from the local food chain, our health authorities are understandably reluctant to eliminate artificial trans fats, especially when many of them are still stuck with the errorneous belief that saturated fats are harmful.

They worry that any attempt to eliminate trans fats will raise the level of saturated fats intake.

There is no need to worry. Throughout the world, humans had always been taking saturated fats as their main form of fat – pork lard in China, butter in Europe, goose fat in parts of France, ghee in India, coconut and palm oil in the tropics… And, I just read in the weekend edition of TODAY newspaper, yak butter in Tibet.

And heart disease, cancer, etc were rare until the last century. In fact, the rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity and other degenerative disease skyrocketed during the last few decades, as recently as the 1970s and 80s, when people began to take less saturated fats.

Even today, countries like Korea have low rates of heart disease and cancer, despite the population eating plenty of beef – all that red meat, saturated fats and cholesterol! Because in places like Korea, the consumption of trans fats and other modern foods is still very low. Click here to learn more.

Go find out more. A good source of information is the Weston Price Foundation – but the articles there tend to be more detailed and more technical, so if you want something easier to digest, go to my website first.

As you find out, you will discover that cholesterol, too, is not harmful but necessary and beneficial for health. People with high cholesterol actually live longer, healthier lives!

So go out and enjoy your char kway teow and laksa… with extra cockles, without any guilt.

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Caring vs playing nanny

January 27, 2007

Would a ban on trans fats make Singapore more of a nanny state?

Much that I disagree with the government interfering with people’s private lives, including what foods they put into their mouths, I feel that curbs on the use of harmful food ingredients is perfectly acceptable.

After all, we let the government decide – and never or seldom complain – that:

  • Our tap water should be chlorinated and fluoridated, even though there is considerable scientific evidence that these substances are highly toxic.
  • The air we breathe be regularly fumigated with pesticides so that we might not get bittn by mosquitoes, never mind if leading WHO experts on mosquito control say that fumigation is ineffective.

There are lots more things that we let the government decide without even realising it. Do you know, for example, that regular flour is allowed, by law, to contain various chemical additives without having them declared?

We also let the government approve various food additives like aspartame and MSG, and ban others (which we might not know about). We let the government ban drugs like heroin, Ecstasy and now, Subutex. In fact, we expect the government to do such things. This has nothing to do with nannyism.

To me, nannyism is when, for example, the government dictates that pubs cannot allow smoking even though many people who go to pubs are smokers. I am not a smoker but I really feel sad that smokers are being treated like pariahs in our society.

Here is another example of nannyism:

Some months back, the government banned kombucha, a fungus used to ferment tea and sold as a health product in health stores.

Kombucha is consumed by people who more or less know what they are taking. They had read about it in some health books. They believe what they read and they decide to take it. They even go out of their way to buy it from special health food stores. It’s not something sold in at NTUC Fairprice, which might be unwittingly consumed by people who don’t know what it is.

And it is not as if kombucha is widely acknowledged to be harmful the way trans fats are now known to be deadly. On the contrary, most health writers say wonderful things about kombucha being beneficial for all sorts of health conditions.

But, as is usually the case with matters regarding health, not everybody holds the same view.

So some people believe kombucha is harmful. The government chose to listen to this group of people and decided that no one in Singapore should be allowed to take kombucha.

This, to me, is nannyism – controlling what people can or cannot eat when they are educated and fully capable of finding out the implications of their food intake.

This is not the same as controlling the use of trans fats. Because trans fats are harmful substances being regularly – and most of the time unknowingly – consumed by the general population, including babies and young children, including the illiterate and uneducated who cannot read food labels.

A government that controls the use of trans fats is not playing nanny. It is caring for the welfare of its citizens – and its guests.

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Trans fat labelling in 4 languages?

January 27, 2007

Still thinking about that roti prata man, it occurred to me that, perhaps, trans fat labelling in Singapore might not be such a great idea after all.

For labelling to be effective, we need to have it in at least all the four official languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Not only that, we need to translate all the educational material, plus all the debates going in the Straits Times. TODAY and other newspaper, websites and blogs… into all four languages.

By the way, is there much discussion about trans fats in the Chinese, Malay and Tamil newspapers? Perhaps readers of these newspapers could enlighten me? 

And if we care a damn about our guest workers who help keep our economy running smoothly for minimal wages, then perhaps we should also have trans fat labelling in Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, Myanmese, Bangla and other languages too.

Imagine just the additional paper costs involved in printing large enough labels to accommodate all these languages!

OK… I am exaggerating.

But seriously, we bloggers and bloggees are probably the last people who need trans fat labelling. If we are educated and literate enough to surf the Internet, we ought to know how to identify trans fats by looking out for words like “partially hydrogenated” or “vegetable shortening” on the ingredients list of food labels.

The people who really need help – and need to be protected from the harm of trans fats – are our lesser educated (and often poorer) fellow citizens.

And would trans fat labelling help them?

No. They are the people least likely to read food labels, most likely to buy products either on the basis of price, or because they had seen or heard the brand on a TV commercial.

Just as I was about to write this post, I received a comment from pingback about trans fats in the heartlands. And I think about the cake / pastry shop just downstairs of my block of flats.

Without having to do any scientific analysis, I just know that their “goodies” are made from margarine and full of trans fats. Because butter is more expensive than margarine. If these business owners switch to butter, they might not be able to cover their rents because, even with margarine, they are already struggling to keep afloat in business.

This is standard “heartlands” fare. Full of trans fats. Not to mention full of sugar, refined carbohydrates, artificial colouring, artificial flavouring and other harmful stuffs.

And these breads, cakes and pastries do not come with labels anyway.

In rural societies, the poor do not get to each such things. They eat rice with vegetables or, if they are really poor, rice with soy sauce. But in places like Singapore, the poor eat foods that give them “rich man’s diseases” like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

What would help them? Trans fat labelling certainly wouldn’t.

A ban on trans fats would.

A trans fats ban would, at least, remove one extremely harmful element from their diet. Additional bans on things like artificial colouring would be even more helpful… but that is another topic for another time.

Unfortunately, a trans fats ban might also drive some of these small neighbourhood bakeries out of business. But many of these are already on the verge of folding up anyway. A benevolent government could, to some extent, help them out through schemes such as those that provide lump sum payments for HDB shops that close.

But the great benefit of a trans fats ban will be that our heartlanders reduce their risks of developing diseases that they cannot afford to develop.

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Prata with Planta? Ghee please

January 26, 2007

I just had trans fats for breakfast. Argh! Sometimes, I, too, get careless and forget.

I had ordered a roti prata and a dosai and was happily about to eat them when, for some reason, the prata man decided to chat with me and explain the different types of curry sauces that he had served.

Then I remembered and I asked whether he made the prata and dosai with ghee or margarine.

“Planta (margarine),” he proudly said.

“Margarine tak baik (no good), ghee lebeh baik (better)” I told him.

He was puzzled. “Ghee cholesterol lah,” he explained.

Alamak! I was thinking to myself, how do I explain to the prata man about trans fats? Then an idea came…

“Margarine New York ban! Denmark pun (also) ban,” I told him.

He looked stunned. “Apa pasal? (What’s the problem?)

“Heart disease, cancer, diabetes… banyak banyak pasal (many, many problems).”

He looked even more stunned. I asked if he read the newspapers, or if his children have Internet access. He told me he reads the Tamil Murasu.

Ah! I must write a Letter to the Editor of  Tamil Murasu then. If it gets published, I can then boast that my articles get translated into Tamil, ha ha!

But more seriously, I would encourage you to ask about ghee and margarine the next time you eat roti prata, dosai and other Indian foods.

For those who seek scientific evidence, here’s some from my website article about the causes of coronary heart disease:

In India, a 1968 study found North Indians, who ate more meat and used mainly ghee (clarified butter) for cooking, had 17 times more saturated fats in their diets than South Indians, who were more vegetarians. However, North Indians had seven times less heart disease than Indians in the South.

This was because, by the late 60s, South Indians had started the switch from coconut oil, which contains about 90 percent saturated fats, to margarine and other polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

More recent studies show that North Indians are finally begin to catch up with the South in heart disease rates – because North Indians have started to use less ghee and more margarine and vegetable oils.

Any Indian readers out there who can help me translate a short message about trans fats into Tamil – and other Indian languages?

Then we can distribute them to our favourite prata sellers.