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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