NTUC Fairprice: Trans fat labelling or slogan-ing?

February 8, 2007

I don’t like being a wet blanket, but I must say I did not get overly excited when I read a while ago that NTUC Fairprice will ‘label’ some of its new housebrand products “trans fat free”.

It was funny how I came across the news, however. I found it at The Straight Times Forum, a site that encourages people to post well-written letters that got rejected by The Straits Times Forum. I was wondering who had written an unpublished letter about trans fats, when I realised it was a news story posted, at 1816 hrs, by Channel News Asia. Click here to read the full story.

I was not overly excited because

  • I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. “Trans fat free” has become a hot band wagon that supermarket chains are only too happy to jump on, once they have an opportunity.
  • Looking at the photograph posted on the CNA website, none of the NTUC Fairprice “trans fat free” items looks like I would eat them. None looked healthy – commercially produced bread, instant noodles, regular cooking oil, biscuits….

But come to think of it, I had already seen the trans fat free “label” on a bottle of NTUC Fairprice cooking oil about a week ago.

    For a while just now, I wondered if the journalist in me had missed a scoop? I could have, yet again, been the first to report the news before the MSM (main stream media) did. But I didn’t think much of the “labelling” when I saw it on the shelf the other day. I thought it was interesting that Fairprice had already jumped onto the bandwagon; I did not think it was worth shouting about

    What Fairprice has done is not so much labelling, but what I call slogan-ing.

    Let me explain the difference. Labelling is where, within the limits allowed by the law, a food manufacturer tells the facts as they are — for example, whether a product contains 0.4 grams or 0.6 grams of trans fats per serving.

    Slogan-ing is when a quality — such as “trans fat free” — is highlighted for the sake of attracting consumer attention. It is a marketing gimmick.

    Labelling is compulsory — except when the law grants an exemption, such as when products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats are, under US trans fat labelling laws, exempted from being declared. Note, however, that Canadian trans fat labelling laws grant exemption only for products with lessthan 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving.

    But whatever the case, once labelling is legislated, then ALL products must be labelled accordingly.

    Slogan-ing, in contrast, is entirely voluntary. A manufacturer puts up a slogan only when it serves its purpose.

    Another vital difference is this: Labelling, to some extent, serves the consumer. Slogan-ing serves the manufacturer and retailer.

    Also, as I explained in my earlier post and website article about “positive labelling” (at that time I had not yet coined the term slogan-ing), a label that states “trans fat free” does not guarantee that the product is healthy.

    Instead, it could mean:

    • The product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. And you need to pay careful attention to the serving size. Some manufacturers make their serving sizes so small that the average person would easily eat two or three or more servings at one go.
    • The product contains fully hydrogenated oils, or interesterified fat. It’s true that these contain no trans fat. But it’s not true that they do no harm. In fact, scientists are beginning to discover that interesterified fat is even more harmful than trans fat, especially in causing diabetes.
    • In the case of regular cooking oils like corn, soybean, etc, even though they contain no trans fat, they are harmful in other ways because these oils had been extracted at high temperature. The high temperature makes such oils rancid. They are full of free radicals which damage cells, accelerate aging and lead to degenerative diseases.
    • Also in the case of regular cooking oils, the “trans fat free” slogan is actually meaningless because these oils are not supposed to contain trans fats anyway. But actually they do contain very small amounts, formed during the process of deodorisation to remove the rancid smell.

    Now you see why I am not too hot about “trans fat free” slogan-ing.

    Even if it is proper labelling, I am not too hot about it. A study done recently in Australia by the NSW Food Authority found that the mandatory nutrition information that appears on all processed foods “is often inaccurate and misleading”.

    Firstly, there is a margin of error of about +/- 20 percent.

    But even allowing for this 20 per cent margin of error, as many as 84 per cent of labels incorrectly stated the quantity of at least one component.

    Now here comes the shocker… The study found that in one brand of potato chips, the amount of trans fat was 13 times higher than claimed on the label. Click here to read a Sydney Morning Herald report about the study, titled Big Fat Lie: Food labels hiding the truth.

    Even if labelling is done properly and accurately, it is well known that most consumers do not read food labels and that those who read often do not understand what they read.

    Steen Stender, the man who got Denmark to ban trans fats, has this to say about trans fat labelling: “You can put poison in food, if you label it properly. Here in Denmark, we remove the poison and people don’t have to know anything about trans fatty acids.”

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