Archive for February, 2007

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Malaysia to ban fast food ads – Boleh!

February 28, 2007

There has been much talk about fast foods up in Malaysia, ever since Health Minister Dr Chua Soi Lek announced on February 17 that his Ministry was “seriously considering” a ban on fast food advertising as well as a “sin tax” on fast foods, similar to taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.

Malaysian schools might also have to stop selling fast foods.

Sorry I am late in writing about this. I didn’t know until yesterday because, as usual, the Singapore MSM (mainstream media) did not earlier report the news (and, admittedly, I don’t read the papers everyday). Finally, The Straits Times reported it yesterday, Februay 27.

Why does a major news story about our closest neighbouring country – which gets reported around the world, as far away as Taiwan and Turkey – take 10 DAYS to reach us?

Reader MKO, who had been monitoring the situation and had alerted me on the Malaysian reports yesterday, was wondering it the news would ever be published here because it would, once again, show up our Singapore health authorities as being laggards in taking action to protect the health of Singaporeans.

And he was not suprised that when the news was finally reported, it focused on the negatives – the adverse reaction from the advertising industry.

I did a brief search on the website of The Star, the Malaysian newspaper that first broke the news. And yes, there has been a lot of talk.

Not only that, there has also been a WIDESPREAD SUPPORT for the ban.

Two days after the ban was proposed, the Ministry of Information said it was willing to stop fast food advertisements from being aired on Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) stations

Information Minister Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin said the matter was not a question of profits as RTM, being a government body, placed more emphasis on social responsibility.

“I fully support it (banning fast food advertisements). They (fast foods) should not be promoted,” he told reporters.

Zainuddin said his support did not mean that he was against fast food companies but he feared the culture (fast food) will become worse and more difficult to tackle in future. He said that there were many other foods that could help Malaysian to be more healthy.

The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) welcomed the proposal and its president Datuk Dr Teoh Siang Chin said the nutritional value of fast food was doubtful.

“The changing diet of ‘civilised homo sapiens’ is a contributing factor in the rise of lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes and hypertension. As such, the education and influence for proper dietary habits should be a continuous process in school and at home,” Dr Teoh said.

Dr Teoh added that rather than the outright banning of such advertisements, there should be a requirement that fast food companies bear a “social sin tax” to promote healthy living and eating. “This would be more palatable to the advertising and media sector and a ‘win-win’ solution,” he said.

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), probably Malaysia’s most active and vocal consumer group, fully supported the advertising ban.

CAP President S.M. Mohamed Idris cited one study (the Cardia study in the United States), which showed that fast-food consumption had strong positive associations with weight gain and insulin resistance, suggesting that fast food increases the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

“Prolonged exposure to fast-food advertisements can increase the chances that children select the advertised food over other options,” Mohd Idris said.

“If it were always up to the consumer to decide, there would not be the need for all these safeguards (such as restrictions on tobacco and alcohol advertisements). Even the bans on the use certain dangerous substances would then have to be questioned. Sometimes, as in this case, consumers may need added protection, as well as a conducive environment that will facilitate healthy food choices.”

FOMCA, the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations was supportive as well. FOMCA secretary-general Muhammad Shaani Abdullah said it was an irony that while the authorities were promoting wellness programmes, fast food adverts have become more widespread.

“Fiercer efforts by companies to advertise fast food has led to the failure of the authorities’ campaigns to promote a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle among Malaysians,” he said.

Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia Project Director Noor Nirwandy Mat Noordin said the Health Ministry should give fast food restaurants and products labels just like the warning labels on cigarette boxes.

_________

Contrast all this with the situation in Singapore.

Here, we have citizens and consumers concerned about harmful food substances like trans fats but…

  • The Health Ministry and Health Promotion Board do not think the problem is serious to warrant any strong action.
  • Radio and television stations are all private corporations driven by profits, so withidrawing advertisements for the sake of social responsibility is probably out of the question.
  • Medical bodies like the Singapore Heart Foundation support the government’s position that there is no need for firm action (the one thing we have in common with Malaysia is that, well, the medical associations support the government).
  • The Consumers Association of Singapore says and does next to nothing on such issues. And we just found on in the Lianhe Zaobao report on Sunday that Case actually conducted a study on trans fats in 2004, but decided not to release the report as the government did not air the issue at that time.

Sigh… Singapore tak boleh!

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Footnote: For non-Malaysian / non-Singaporean readers, “boleh” means “can” and it refers to a popular Malaysian slogan, “Malaysia boleh” meaning “Malaysia can do”. “Tak boleh” means cannot.

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Trans Fat in Zaobao

February 25, 2007

Yours truly is featured in the Chinese newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, today talking about trans fats.

Unfortunately, I cannot read Chinese (because I am old enough to have been allowed to opt for studying Malay as a second language) so I can’t tell you what the article says.

Perhaps one of you can be kind enough to provide a translation?

____________

12.50 pm update

Just back from late breakfast / lunch at the Ang Mo Kio Ave 4 food centre, the one that sells youtiao fried in coconut oil… with my friend David who is able to read Chinese.

I asked David to help translate the Zaobao article and his first – and second – reaction was “Wah”. In fact, that was my first reaction too, when I bought the newspaper and saw that they had devoted an entire page to the subject of trans fats.

The first “Wah” from David was when he saw the headline of the article, which described me as “The voice of the opposition”. Ha ha, I don’t mind that headline at all, in fact, I rather like it. Maybe I will get an invitation to join the Workers’ Party 😉

The second “Wah” came when David read my Chinese name, which he says was “very powerful”. I always thought my Chinese name, Siew Sai, meant “pretty lion” but David says it is better translated as “elegant lion”.

Hmmm… not bad too.

OK the rough translation… First off, the highlight quote talks about the Chinese – and the people of Okinawa – eating lard for thousands of years and not having heart disease. And about the Europeans taking butter, Indians taking ghee, etc.

The main article talks about me setting up the STOP trans fat website and my message that saturated fats are not as harmful as commonly believed.

It went into some details about how many hits (actually should be visitors, not hits) I’ve been getting and there was some inaccuracy about STOP trans fat being my most popular website. It is not. I get more visitors from my personal website, www.richardseah.com and my art-photograph-gallery website, just that the STOP trans fat site is faring well in spite of it being barely two months old.

The article also mentioned about me growing up weakly and always falling ill. Apparently it said my health improved after I stopped taking trans fats, which is again not totally accurate. My health improved after I started taking more natural, whole foods.

David felt that the article ended on a negative note, by mentioning that I am not a doctor, nutritionist or other medically / nutritionally qualified person.

The reporter had asked how I hoped to convince people without any formal qualifications and I said that if people do not wish to believe what I say, good luck to them.

It is a sad reflection of our society that people attach so much importance to paper qualifications rather than the soundness and logic of arguments presented. I may not be well qualified in nutrition, but I read widely and quote people – like researchers Mary Enig and Walter Willet – who are eminently qualified.

Anyway, I did not mind the mention that I am not qualified. To one of my readers at least, this is something to be proud of. Shortly after I launched this blog, MK O – who had been reading my articles since I published The Good Life in 1989 – sent me an email saying:

You know what one of your achivements is Richard? It has been said that in Singapore one isn’t qualified for anything until a piece of paper says so. Well you have escaped that trap cos no one has discredited you for anything you say so far – disagreed yes. As far as I have know about you you are not trained in healthcare or medicine right? I guess you are putting your journalistic skill to best use.

So yes, I am proud of the fact that I can speak and write authoritatively about trans fat – and health – without a piece of paper qualification. And I thank MK O for this affirmation 🙂

And no, I don’t have any complaint about the Zaobao article despite the slight inaccuracies and the “negative” ending. In fact, I am very pleased for several reasons:

  • I was given fairly extensive coverage, with a picture and all taking up about 1/4 page.
  • The article about me was placed on top of another article quoting a (well-qualified) nutritionist from Raffles Hospital, saying the usual things about saturated fats also being harmful, and giving the usual advice to take soft margarine and canola oil. (Incidentally, my friend David had once switched to cooking with canola oil and he says it is f*** up, made his pots and pans overly greasy and hard to clean! And he wondered what it would do to the insides of his body.)

The rest of the page…

The lead article was about the Consumers’ Association of Singapore having conducted a study on trans fats back in 2004, but the results were not published because, at that time, the government was not paying much attention to the issue.

Case said it was now reviving the issue and trying to persuade food manufacturers to either declare their content of trans fats, or remove them.

According to David, the article is “neither here nor there… doesn’t say much, very diplomatic and politically correct… not like yours!”

Another article on the side praised NTUC Fairprice for initiating trans fat labelling for some of its products. Apparently 28 food manufacturers have supported the cause and have removed trans fats from their products.

Finally, there are some basic questions answered at the bottom of the page, like what are trans fats, what foods contain them, etc.

Disappointly, the part about what trans fats do to the body repeats the same single point mentioned in the Health Promotion Board website, that trans fats raise cholesterol levels. I had mentioned to the Zaobao reporter about about trans fat being associated with diabetes, infertility, low birth weight, cancer, allergies, Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems.

Perhaps she dared not report these since the Health Promotion Board does not say so? Oh well…

But with one entire page (without advertisements) devoted to the issue of trans fats, what more can one ask for?

My thanks and congratulations to Zaobao health reporter Chua Hwee Leng for a job generally well done.

 

 

 

 

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Ricola is NOT “just natural” – and not healthy

February 24, 2007

Time flies and it has been a week already since my last post. Shows how easy it is to break a (good) habit.

Anyway, I am back. Happy Lunar New Year to one and all. And “happy birthday” too. If I remember correctly, today 24 February is the 7th day of the Lunar New Year and, according to Chinese culture, today is “everybody’s birthday”!

A while ago, I wrote about The Mouth Revolution. I was really excited to discover the site as well as The Mouth Blog and I wrote to them to offer some blog contributions.

One possible post I suggested was about Ricola, the Swiss herbal candy, which uses the slogan “It’s just natural” even though it contains the artificial sweetener, aspartame.

Today, I finally got an email reply from Mark Berger at The Mouth Blog saying: “I checked the food label of Ricola cough drops and didn’t see ‘Aspartame’ listed… I was concerned when you mentioned it.”

Just to be sure, I went to check again at 7-Eleven a while ago. The front of the Ricola packet says “Sugar free” and the ingredients’ list on the back includes ‘Aspartame’. It also carries the usual warning that it contains phenylalanine, a substance that must be avoided by people born with a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria (PKU).

I realised that some double standards are being applied here. When I did a Google search for “Ricola ingredients”, true enough I don’t see aspartame listed, only sugar.

But when I did a similar search on “Ricola” and clicked “Pages from Singapore”, I am led to the Ricola Asia website as well as The Ricola Club website.

There is no mention of aspartame there either, but it says “100% natural” as well as “sugar free”. This is obviously the version I found at 7-Eleven, containing aspartame.

Under “About Ricola”, the website adds:

All Ricola products are made from 100% natural herbs… There’s not a single artificial flavour or colour in Ricola products. It’s the 13 natural Swiss Mountain Herbs that have been giving Ricola sugar free Lozenges and Pearls their unique gentle, soothing and refreshing character.

So now you know that Ricola products not only taste good, but they’re healthy too!

Notice the careful wording there? They say “100% natural herbs” rather than “100% natural ingredients”. (In any case, is there such a thing as “unnatural herb”? Of course all herbs are natural!)

They also say “not a single artificial flavour or colour” rather than “not a single artificial ingredient”.

This is yet another case where consumers have to be extra careful when reading food labels. ALWAYS read the ingredients list rather than product descriptions and slogans like “It’s just natural”.

So is Ricola healthy?

Perhaps the US or European version is, provided one does not take too much because sugar is not exactly a healthy food. As for the Singaporean / Asian variety, my recommendation is to avoid it!

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Wife cakes “no trans fat” in Chinatown

February 17, 2007

I was in Chinatown earlier today and guess what I saw? A signboard saying “No trans fat”.

It was an advertising slogan for a stall selling cashew nuts, called Dan-D-Pak. It’s produced in Vietnam and exported to Canada and they have cashews in garlic, wasabi, salted, unsalted and other flavours.

So it also comes with a Nutrition Facts Label that states ‘Trans 0 g”. And for products sold in Canada, you can be assured that “No trans fat” mean not more than 0.2 gram trans fat per serving, versus 0.5 gram for US products. Because Canadian trans fat labelling laws are stricter on this.

I bought a packet. I had already wanted to buy before I saw the “No trans fat” sign, since nuts are not supposed to contain trans fats anyway, unless they have been fried in hydrogenated oils.

These guys sure know how to cash in on a selling point. They are obviously jumping onto the bandwagon, which, in itself, is not a bad thing. It is a sign that awareness about trans fats has risen – a good sign.

The nuts, however, I found to be just so so…

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My more interesting discovery in Chinatown was a Hongkong pastry shop called Da Sheng. The pastries looked good and I was about to buy when I noticed a Sunday Times review posted near the counter.

The review, by Foong Woei Wan and published on 28 January, raved about the shop’s century egg pastry: “The pastry is light and crumbly and the lotus seed paste tastes subtle and far from cloying. There is also a generous heap of cubed century egg inside each pastry.”

Unfortunately, they were sold out, so I bought the “wife cake” or “wife biscuit”. This is a pastry with winter melon filling and the reviewer had described them as “decent”.

To me, they were great. They were by far the best wife biscuit I have ever eaten. Admittedly, I have not eaten enough wife biscuits to proclaim myself a connoisseur, but they were just so much better than others that I ever eaten before.

They lady who sold them to me – she seemed to be the boss – was quite chatty, so I asked her about the oil used. In particular, I asked if they used pork lard, because I remember my ex-neighbour, whose family runs one of Singapore’s most established mookcake businesses, telling me that Chinese-style cookies taste much better when made with pork lard.

Also, as I later recalled, such Chinese style pastries were called, in my Teochew dialect, lar pia, meaning “lard biscuit”.

“Vegetable oil,” the lady said and she pointed to a signboard that said something like “100% vegetable oil” and “healthy”.

“Not margarine?” I asked.

(Incidentally, I think it is a good idea that we – those of us who are against trans fat – keep asking whether food producers use margarine. When we ask often enough, they will get the message that we don’t want margarine.)

“No. Vegetable oil,” she replied.

“Wouldn’t it taste better with lard than with vegetable oil?”

“It’s not the lard or oil, it’s the kung fu (expertise),” she ventured.

Well, I am not going to argue with that. Her chef obviously has great kung fu.

I also bought a water chestnut cake from Da Sheng. This is like a firm jelly, made with water chestnut pieces, water chestnut flour (which is starchy) and sugar. It, too, was delicious.

And they are trans fat free 🙂

In fact, all traditional cakes, pastries, biscuits, kueh, etc are all trans fat free – provided they are made the original way.

Da Sheng is at 36 Sago Street, on the side of Chinatown facing South Bridge Road / Neil Road – that is, facing away from People’s Park.

I will be going back another day, for more wife biscuits (80 cents), water chestnut cakes ($8 but currently on special offer at $5) and the much touted century egg pastry (60 cents).

All trans fat free.

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Don’t eat potato chips! Try lily bulbs instead

February 15, 2007

Never mind how much or how little trans fats there is in a serving or a packet of potato chips. Or a donut. By the time you finish reading this post, you might not want to ever eat them again.

I must say this is disappointing for me. Although I don’t eat chips a lot, sometimes not even one pack a year, I do enjoy them. But the biggest disappointment for me was the discovery that even supposedly “healthy” chips, like Kettle – which, incidentally, I was the first to import into Singapore and sell at Brown Rice Paradise long before they started selling everywhere else – is apparently not all that good after all.

Donuts, fortunately, I can happily live without. But if you are a fan of donuts, this might spoil your appetite for them too.

What did I discover?

It was a letter posted on the website of Dr Mercola, which is probably the most popular health website on the internet. Recently, Dr Mercola posted an article titled More reasons to avoid potato chips.

It started off with a letter from a Mr Dennis Meizys, who works for a company that is researching how to convert used vegetable oil into biodiesel. Mr Meizys job was to go around looking for used oil from food companies. He writes:

Contrary to what you might think, it seems the worst abusers of vegetable oils were not McDonald’s, but potato chip and donut manufacturers.

One manufacturer replied to my offer to purchase their used oil with the explanation that they hardly have any used oil left-over after the process. Tens of thousands of gallons come in, barely hundreds come out.

The reason? This manufacturer recycles the oil until it is entirely absorbed by the food. All that dirty oil eventually ends up in the potato chips themselves.

One problem that occurs after re-using vegetable oils is that FFA’s (free fatty acids) concentrate. The manufacturer volunteered this fact and noted that their solution is to chemically treat the oil to reduce the FFA’s, after which it is sent back to produce more potato chips. Mmmm — re-used vegetable oil treated with chemicals to reduce free fatty acids!

It turns out that these oils are so bad that biodiesel manufacturers shun them! In other words, they are difficult to catalyze into methyl-esters (biodiesel) and producers are reluctant to use them for engine fuel, yet people still eat the potato chips!

That brings us to the last time I ate a donut, those nicely-colored sweet confections. If you only saw the waste products… Did you ever go inside the donut shop and look at how much oil they have in those vats? Now consider that they only dispose of 55 gallons every 6 months!

One closed-down shop asked me to pick up their barrel of used vegetable oil from their parking lot because it was leaking and causing ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE. I tried to drain the oil out, but it was so thick and sludgy that it clogged my pump. I was considering using a heavy-duty sewage pump to drain it, but decided not to, because the thick, smelly contents of that barrel were not usable as an ingredient for fuel, and refining it would be too expensive.

The material had an uncanny resemblance to sewage. The only reason I knew it wasn’t, was that it had a sweet, donut-like smell to it, but entirely unpleasant.

Scientific facts like knowing the carcinogen content of these “foods” is interesting, but if you want real motivation to avoid junk foods, go to the back of the “restaurant” were they dispose of their environmentally-harmful by-product and take a look.

Regards,

Dennis Meizys
Maryland Green Power Co.

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Elsewhere on Dr Mercola’s site, there is another article titled The most dangerous chips to eat.

Dr Mercola informs that the California-based Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) has filed notices with the state’s attorney general against several potato chip manufacturers… that would require them to place labels on their products warning consumers about the high levels of acrylamide – a cancer causing chemical.

Manufacturers who sell their products without such warnings are in violation of California law, California Proposition 65.

According to an ELF report, potato chips exceeded California’s required warning levels for acrylamide by as much as 910 times!

The offenders include:

  • Cape Cod Robust Russet: 910 times
  • Kettle Chips (lightly salted): 505 times
  • Kettle Chips (honey dijon): 495 times
  • Pringles Snack Stacks (pizza-flavored): 170 times
  • Lay’s Baked: 150 times

Like I said, I was most disappointed to learn that Kettle Chips are among the worst offenders, because I used to sell them in my natural and organic foods shop.

In fact, just hours before I read that report, I was at Carrefour looking at the ingredients list of different brands of chips and I thought Kettle came across as a “model” of how potato chips should be made. The chips contained just 3 ingredients: potatoes, oil (I think it was sunflower, certainly not partially hydrogenated) and salt.

Remember Michael Pollan’s article about not eating foods that contain more than five ingredients? I was just thinking about holding up Kettle as a fine example. I was really disappointed. But, at the same time, I was glad I was no longer running Brown Rice Paradise and selling those chips.

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Is there nothing left to eat?

Of course there is.

At this time of the year, lots of “vegetable chips” are being sold together with other Chinese New Year cookies. Most of the cookies are made with margarine, full of trans fats and taste awful anyway. So they are best avoided.

But the chips are relatively ok. They are thinly sliced “lily bulbs” and deep fried, most probably in palm oil. So no trans fats there.

Ya, maybe they re-use the oil a few times. So if you really want a healthier version, buy the lily bulbs from the wet markets and fry them yourself – using coconut oil, butter, pork lard, sesame oil… whichever oil can take relatively high heat, just make sure the oil does not smoke.

But even if you buy them ready cooked, you can be quite sure that they don’t reuse the oil until it turns into sludge that biodiesel companies would reject.

These chips are mostly done by food hawkers and small, home-based businesses. These people don’t have the technology to re-use oil to the same extent that potato chip manufacturers do.

And, by the way, the lily bulb chips are quite delicious – almost as addictive as potato chips.

Don’t eat too much.

 

 

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Trans fat labelling mathematics: 0.4 x 5 = 0?

February 14, 2007

Yesterday, there was a letter in the ST Forum by YCK, who regularly contributes comments on this blog. YCK asked some pertinent questions and his letter provided me with an opportunity to put in another question that had been on my mind all along.

My question / letter was published today in the ST Forum Online. Here it is:

 

Trans fat labelling: A mathematical poser

Here is another question to add to the list provided by Mr Yeo Chow Khoon in his letter, ‘Some questions remain on trans fat labelling.’ (ST 13 Feb).

My question is this: How much is 0.4 x 5? Is it 2, as we would expect it to be, or can the answer also be 0?

Under US laws on trans fat labelling, which our health authorities seem to be have adopted as their guidelines, a product that contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving shall (meaning “must”) declare the trans fat content as “0 gram.”

Thus, a product with, say, 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving will be labelled “0 gram” trans fat.

However, some nutrition facts labels also state the content of various ingredients per 100 grams. So if the serving size is, say, 20 grams, then 100 grams will consist of five servings.

In such a situation, will the trans fat content per 100 grams also show as “0 grams”?

Questions such as this are important because many food manufacturers have made their serving sizes ridiculously small in order to label them “no trans fat”.

For example, the serving size for potato chips ranges from about 18 to 28 grams, or 1/7 to 1/5 of a packet. The serving size for margarine is 20 grams, or about 1 teaspoonful, barely enough to spread very thinly over a slice of bread.

How many people actually restrict themselves to such absurdly small servings?

The US introduced trans fat labelling on 1 January 2006 but health advocates and consumers there continue to complain about various legal loopholes that allow food manufacturers to hide trans fats.

Food labelling is very often confusing. As Mr Yeo rightly pointed out, “even the most eagle-eyed, educated and self-reliant consumer cannot be certain what he is buying.”

This is why two US cities – New York and Philadelphia – have decided to ban trans fats and many more cities and states are set to follow.

Over in Denmark, trans fats have been banned since 1 January 2004. As far as I am aware, no one there is complaining.

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The Mouth Revolution

February 12, 2007

An earlier post about Michael Pollan’s article, Unhappy Meals, got me thinking about this whole idea of REAL FOOD.

So it was perhaps not a coincidence that I received an email from my friend Neil Reily, who publishes the Holistic Living newsletter and organises Holistic Living fairs, pointing me to a video titled The Mouth Revolution.

I won’t tell you too much about it, just that it is about REAL FOOD – No trans fat, No GMO, No pesticides, No artificial Anything.

It’s very creative, rather funny and I found it highly entertaining. Go watch it!

And join The Mouth Revolution!