Archive for March, 2007

h1

More confusion with fractionated margarine

March 22, 2007

I wrote the other day about local margarine being relatively healthy because they are made by a difference process called fractionation, which does not produce trans fats.

But while this is reassuring, it also means that it is actually even more difficult and confusing to identify trans fats in processed food. If you find margarine / shortening on the ingredients list, it may or may nor indicate the presence of trans fats – depending on how the margarine / shortening was made.

It even means that fractionated hard margarine might still be healthier than hydrogenated soft margarine. Confusion, confusion… and we end up not knowing what we are consuming.

Below is my letter to the ST Forum on this, published today in ST Online:

____________

Consumers like me, who are concerned about the harm of trans fats, have always assumed that margarine and vegetable shortening are made by hydrogenation, a process that creates trans fats.

But this is not always the case. At the trans fat forum on March 17, I learnt that Singapore and Malaysia do not have any hydrogenation plant and that local margarine / shortening are made by a different process called fractionation.

Fractionation is a simple mechanical process that involves chilling the oil (usually palm oil) until its content of saturated fats hardens. This portion, or fraction, is then filtered out and blended with liquid oils to achieve the desired consistency.

Unlike hydrogenation, fractionation does not require high heat, high pressure nor the use of toxic chemical catalysts. It does not create trans fats.

This means that local (and Malaysian) margarine, as well as biscuits, cookies and other products made with local shortening, generally do not contain trans fats except maybe trace amounts.

But this also raises questions and creates confusion.

We have been told that soft margarine has less trans fat than hard margarine. But it now seems that what truly matters is how the margarine is made – hydrogenated or fractionated – rather than whether it is soft or hard.

Identifying trans fats is thus much harder than we thought. If we read the ingredients’ list and find margarine, shortening or even vague terms like “hardened vegetable oil”, there is no way to tell whether the product contains trans fats.

For example, Thailand-made Oreo cookies use “shortening”. Do they contain trans fat? What about the frying oils used by McDonalds and KFC? Are they hydrogenated, fractionated or regular oils?

The only way to know is to have compulsory – and strict – trans fat labelling laws, without provisions for food manufacturers to hide by declaring amounts less than 0.5 gram per serving as “zero”, or by designating ridiculously small serving sizes.

The other way is to ban trans fat. Then, as long as it is legal, it does not contain trans fat.

As food processing technology becomes more complex, consumers are increasingly placed in situations where they don’t know what they are eating. Consumers deserve the right to know, more so than food producers deserve any right to hide poisons in our food.

h1

Biodynamic wine!

March 20, 2007

I am no lover of wine and about the only difference I know about them is between red and white.

But I was just doing a Google search on biodynamics – to see whether my recent article on the subject shows up – when I came across an article in STOMP! about biodynamic wine.

The article was written by Koh Boon Pin whom, I believe (despite my ignorance about wines), is quite a wine expert? It’s about Cullen wines from a vineyard in Margaret River in South-western Australia.

Koh writes that Vanya Cullen, youngest child of the wine producing family, in 2003 steered the family estate into new territory after attending a seminar by the Biodynamic Association of Australia.

Biodynamics was developed by German visionary Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s in response to farmers who were not able to improve the declining health of their farms with new fertilisers.

‘Everyone says it differently, but biodynamics is about working with Nature, not trying to control it,’ says Vanya.

‘It’s about keeping living systems,’ she adds. ‘If you put chemicals on soil, you’re killing it, so what we do is to find alternative solutions by keeping everything alive.’

Despite having an ‘unbelievable’ number of weevils, she adds, the Cullen vines are dark green and very healthy, unlike some other vineyards in Margaret River, which she declines to name.

Another aspect of biodynamics is linking plant growth with the rhythms of the cosmos. So at the Cullen estate, the grapes are hand harvested on a full moon when there is a lot of water in the atmosphere because of the bigger tides.

Though it is early days where its biodynamic approach is concerned, Vanya points to the vineyard’s brighter fruit flavours, better tannins and cleaner wild yeast fermentations.

Having tasted the wines, I believe she’s on to a good thing.

While I don’t know about wines, I can vouch that biodynamic foods in general are great stuffs. So if you are into wine drinking, do check it out.

Cullen biodynamic wines are available from Hai Choo Wines & Spirits, tel: 6273-8933.

h1

O! The organic price difference

March 20, 2007

A short while back, I wrote about Naturally Marketplace and mentioned that they sell O Organic coffee, at $24+. I was at Carrefour just now and I saw the same brand of organic coffee selling for only $15.80!

Now that’s a huge price difference. It is one reason why Carrefour is my favourite supermarket. They have good quality stuffs, mostly at very reasonable prices.

Here’s another reason… I found out today that Carrefour at Plaza Singapura — which I prefer to the outlet at Suntec City which I find to be too huge and out of the way — has reduced the price of its house brand organic dark chocolate.

That used to sell at $3.20 at Plaza Singapura and $2.85 at Suntec. Now it’s $2.85 at Plaza Singapura. Even if it now costs less at Suntec, I am not complaining.

$2.85 for a 100 gram bar of organic dark chocolate, with 74 percent cocoa, is a steal! Even Cadbury’s non-organic and not-so-dark chocolate costs nearly as much ($4+ for 200 grams).

Go give yourself a treat.

 

 

h1

(Relatively) healthy, trans-fat free margarine!

March 19, 2007

Last weekend’s forum on trans fat, as it turned out, was a lot more enlightening than I originally realised. I now say it was revolutionary. And I am not being sarcastic here. I am serious. Because it has completely transformed my view of margarine.

Well, not the entire forum, but just one small remark that came out of it.

If you recall, I had reported that, according to Mr Wong Mong Hong from the Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association, there are no hydrogenation plants in Singapore and Malaysia and he said that local margarines / vegetable shortenings are mostly made by a process called fractionation.

It took me a while to find out what this is. Originally, I remembered the word as “factorisation” and, when I did a Google search, all I found was mathematics! And saltwetfish made the same mistake too 😉

Later, when I got the word correct, I found an article in Wikipedia and it was not very re-assuring. It said:

Fractionation is a separation process in which a certain quantity of a mixture (solid, liquid, solute or suspension) is divided up in a large number of smaller quantities (fractions)… Mixtures of liquids and gases are separated by fractional distillation by difference in boiling point.

I was thinking… What? They boil the oil? What sort of crazy high temperatures do they use? Surely that would make the oil super rancid — and far more harmful than trans fats!

How wrong I was! It is actually the exact opposite. They chill the oil!

When I searched further, I was led to an excellent website called Hydrogenated News and there, I found an interview with Edgar Hernandez, consultant with the American Palm Oil Council, and there, he explains what it is all about:

Fractionation is basically a process by which you can separate the oil into two main fractions – one solid, one liquid. It’s a physical process; there are no chemicals involved in that.

Basically, what they do is chill the oil, so when the temperature goes down, the solid fraction starts to crystallize. Then, you remove that solid fraction by filtration, so that’s why you come out with the fractions – one solid, one liquid.

There are no trans; you won’t get any trans fat unless you do hydrogenation. So, the benefit of those fractions is that you can formulate them in specific ratios and final quality to get the functional properties that you’ll need for different applications – for cooking or for cake or bread. There are different specifications for each, so you obtain those specifications by blending those fractions with the liquid or to come out with the final product.

Reading this was like Eureka! A new enlightenment.

It finally answers a lot of questions that I – and, I am sure, others who had been following the trans fats issue – always had.

Questions like why…

  • Some brands of margarine claim zero or very negligible amounts of trans fats?
  • Some brands of margarine don’t mention partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredients list? (I’ve since discovered, they list “palm oil fraction”!)
  • Some brands of bread, biscuits, cookies, etc claim to have zero trans fat even though the ingredients’ lists say they contain vegetable shortening?

I had also heard it mentioned that there are “trans fat free” shortening, but simply assumed that they, in fact, contained small amounts of trans fats – ie, less than 0.5 grams per serving as allowed under US trans fat labelling laws.

Worse, I suspected that they contained interesterified fats, made from fully hydrogenated oils, which appear to be even more harmful than trans fats.

Finally, I reaslised how mistaken and ignorant I had been all along.

I hereby repent. (This is an excuse for me to explain that the original meaning of “repent”, from the Greek word “metanoia” is to change one’s way of thinking, not to beat the heart in regret!”)

And so, I have to stop declaring that margarines are all deadly poisons. Some of them still are, depending how they are manufactured – by hydrogenation or fractionation.

I won’t say they are absolutely healthy either, because they still have some of the other problems associated with margarine – possibly made with poor quality, rancid oils; containing far too much omega-6 relative to omega 3, and so on.

Plus, they are artificially coloured and flavoured. I had read, I forgot where, that food laws do not allow margarine to be artificially coloured, meaning they must use natural colouring. But it seems those laws don’t apply here. The label on most margarines I saw said “artificial colouring”.

So I will not start eating margarine. They still taste awful anyway.

And butter still has lots more goodness, especially if it is organic butter from grass-fed cows. More on that later. For now, you might want to refer to my website article about butter vs margarine.

Even if you disregard the parts about margarine being partially hydrogenated and containing trans fats, butter is still better 🙂

h1

Trans fats: All we need NOT know

March 18, 2007

My earlier report on the trans fat forum focused on some of the things that were said. But the things not said, perhaps, are more interesting. For they show what the Health Promotion Board does not think it is necessary for Singaporeans to know.

For example, Mr Lim Meng Khiam, the HPB dietician, mentioned that trans fats increase the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower the level of ‘good’ cholesterol. This has been repeated ad nauseam. What’s new?

Mr Lim completely left out the various scientific studies that link trans fats to diabetes, obesity, cancer, infertility, low birth weight in babies, and so on.

He mentioned in passing that trans fats do occur naturally, in products like milk and beef. But, until the subject was again raised during questions and answers, he never mentioned the possibility that natural trans fat might actually be beneficial to health, as opposed to artificial trans fats that are definitely harmful. (In the end, Mr Lim said the scientific studies on natural trans fats were inconclusive.)

Saltwetfish expressed his disappointment during Q&A, for he had expected an update of the international trans fats scene – what other countries were doing either to ban trans fats or to legislate compulsory labelling. That entire topic was not discussed.

If anything, Mr Lim’s presentation focused more on the harm and dangers of saturated fats than on the subject of trans fats.

Yet here, too, there were serious omissions. Mr Lim spent considerable time painting an evil picture of saturated fats and, again if not for questions from the floor, totally disregarded the fact that saturated fats are, in fact, necessary and beneficial for health.

And when he did finally address the issue, he merely acknowledged that saturated fats were needed. There was zero elaboration on the many good things that saturated fats do for the body – maintain the integrity of cell walls, boost immunity, kill bacteria, help calcium absorption, promote hormone production, help the body to store and use beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids, etc.

Yet Mr Lim’s talk was titled, Get your fats right. Is it right to merely highlight the one possible harm of saturated fats (that they raise ‘bad’ cholesterol) and ignore all the goodness

On the flip side, unsaturated fats were presented by Mr Lim as being totally good. He simplistically summarised his talk saying “Bad fats are the saturated and trans fats, good fats are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.”

The audience had to learn from the third speaker, Mr Wong Hong Mong, Deputy President of the Singapore Food Manufacturers Association, that unsaturated fats cause their fair share of health problems – because they are highly reactive and spoil easily.

Mr Wong further revealed that regular cooking oils also contain harmful trans fats that are produced during the process of refining and deodorisation. The level ranges from about 0.5 percent for palm oil, to as high as 4 percent for oils like Canola. In other words, polyunsaturated cooking oils are likely to contain higher levels of harmful trans fats!

If not for Mr Wong and for those who asked certain pertinent questions, forum attendees would have walked away with a very inadequate, very shallow – and totally wrong – understanding about fats. Overall, the forum was a dismal letdown.

Mr Lim did remind the audience to visit the HPB website “for more information”.

But is there more information? As of today (March 18) the HPB website still has only one article on the subject, where All about trans fats is summarised in just over 700 words (about the length of this article), a lot less if the many sub-headings were not counted.

One sub-heading asked: What does trans fat do to our body? The answer is given in two short sentences about the effects on cholesterol.

Is this ALL we need to know?

_________

If you wish to know more, much much more, about trans fats, visit my website, www.stop-trans-fat.com.

h1

Tartrazine, Aspartame and Royal Jelly?

March 18, 2007

Here is a HQ (health quotient) Quiz…

Which of the following does not belong with the rest?

  1. Tartrazine
  2. Aspartame
  3. Royal Jelly
  4. None of the above

If you know what they are, you would pick answer #3, Royal Jelly.

Tartrazine (a yellow colouring) and aspartame (a sweetener) are both synthetic substances, whereas royal jelly (the food that creates queen bees) is natural.

Tartrazine and aspartame are known to cause a wide range of adverse side effects, whereas royal jelly produces mainly beneficial health effects.

According to Singapore’s regulations on food labelling, however, the correct answer is #4, none of the above. All three substances belong together.

The law requires that all three have to be specifically declared on food labels — as opposed to other substances that might be generically declared as “food colouring”, “flavouring”, “preservatives” etc.

This was mentioned at the forum on trans fat. It is something that I find most puzzling?!?

_____

Tartrazine (also known as Yellow #5 or E102) is derived from coal tar. It appears to cause the most allergic and intolerance reactions of all food colouring classified as azo dyes.

Reactions can include anxiety, migraine, clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, rhinitis, urticaria, general weakness, heatwaves, palpitations, feeling of suffocation, pruritus, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbance. In rare cases, the symptoms of tartrazine sensitivity can be felt even at extremely small doses and can last up to 72 hours after exposure.

Tartrazine has also been linked to childhood developmental problems like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) and obsessive compulsive behaviour.

It is banned in Norway and previously banned in Germany and Austria as well, but the European Parliament has lifted the ban.

Despite the many adverse effects associated with Tartrazine it is found in an amazing range of common food items, including supposedly healthy foods like orange juice – and even in vitamin pills!

_______

Aspartame, the artificial sweetener, is likewise associated with a long list of adverse side effects.

Scientists have identified more than 90 medical conditions associated with aspartame, including epileptic seizures, memory loss, migraine, blurred vision and so on.

Aspartame is commonly recommended for people with diabetes. However, a leading US authority on diabetes, Dr H J Roberts, MD, informs that aspartame leads to:

  1. precipitation of clinical diabetes
  2. poorer diabetic control
  3. aggravation of diabetic complications such as retinopathy, cataracts, neuropathy and gastroparesis
  4. convulsions.

Another major group of people who take aspartame are the overweight and obese. They should take note that aspartame has been found to make people eat more! Research also suggests that when aspartame is taken with MSG, another common food additive, its negative effects tend to be enhanced.

Aspartame is, in fact, one of the most controversial food substances ever to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Click here to read more about aspartame, especially the politics behind it.

________

Finally, royal jelly.

It is a natural food substance produced by bees. Among other things, researchers have found that royal jelly:

  • reduces lipid (fat) and cholesterol levels
  • destroys harmful bacteria but not friendly bacteria
  • has anti-inflammatory effects and wound-healing properties.
  • appears to have anti-cancer effects.

________

So why is royal jelly lumped together with two other harmful and controversial synthetic substances?

Because royal jelly has also ever produced allergic reactions, especially among people with asthma (yet there are also studies that suggest royal jelly help people recover from asthma).

Specifically, there had been ONE DEATH associated with the use of royal jelly, sometime during the 1990s. And those in the industry say it was not a straight-forward case of a person taking royal jelly and then dropping dead.

There were other factors involved. One objectively worded medical report described it as “death secondary to royal jelly-induced asthma”, meaning royal jelly was not the primary cause of death.

Just one death, throughout a long history of incident-free royal jelly consumption dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And that was enough to get royal jelly black-listed, placed in the same category as other food substances that cause thousands and millions of adverse reactions.

________

In sharp contrast, trans fats are associated with at least 30,000 deaths each year in the United States alone. That’s a conservative estimate. The actual figure could be as high as 150,000!

But, our health authorities have decided, no need to warn against trans fats.

h1

Trans fats: All “you need” to know

March 18, 2007

Singapore’s first public forum on trans fats, presented today (March 17) by the Health Promotion Board and Consumers’ Association, was titled “Trans fats: All you need to know”.

I highlight and emphasise the phrase “you need” because, it seems to me, the organisers have decided that we need to know just a little.

I thought a more appropriate theme for the forum should have been “Trans fats: All there is to know.”

But that wasn’t the case. Saltwetfish, who was seated next to me (and we met for the first time) at the forum, was expecting an update on the trans fat scene around the world. Nothing of that sort was presented.

Instead, the first two presentations were… yawn!… just the usual stuffs.

——

The first speaker was Mr Lim Meng Thiam, a youngish dietician from the HPB. He simply repeated what his colleagues so far been saying ad nauseum in the MSM (main stream media):

  • trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol
  • saturated fats are also bad
  • WHO (World Health Organisation) says to limit trans fats to 2 grams per day
  • trans fats are not a big problem in Singapore
  • saturated fats are actually a bigger problem
  • polyunsaturated fats are good
  • choose soft margarine over hard margarine or butter…

Ah so! How very enlightening. And oh yes, if you wish to be enlightened further, don’t forget to visit the HPB website (where All about trans fats is summarised into just over 700 words.)

Sure! Let’s all visit the HPB website and give them millions of clicks, so that the website will be declared a huge success and the people there will feel justified to receive their salary increases and maybe even be rewarded with big fat bonuses.

Sorry if I sound overly negative. But I did not expect much from the presentation and got nothing out of it.

And pardom a bit of self-promotion here. If you truly, really, sincerely wish to know a lot more about trans fat, visit my website: www.stop-trans-fat.com.

——

Second speaker was Ms Diana Lee from the Food Control Division, Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority. She was very matter of fact and she basically listed out all the things that must be found on a food label – the name and description of the product, ingredients, expiry date, nutrition information for products that make nutrition claims… and so on.

Another yawn!

But at least I did learn one or two things new from her, particularly the fact that there are three food additives that must be declared:

  1. Tartrazine, an artificial colouring that may also be declared as E102 or Yellow #5
  2. Aspartame, the artificial sweetener, as it contains phenylanaline – a substance that some people are allergic to
  3. Royal jelly, apparently also because some people are allergic to it

I will be commenting on this is another post. Watch this blog. (March 18 update: Blog posted, click here to read.)

——

The third speaker, Mr Wong Mong Hong, Deputy President, Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association, was surprisingly the most enlightening – even though I did not agree with everything that he said, at least he said quite a few things that were not often mentioned or not widely known.

I say surprisingly because I had expected him to do a sales pitch for the food industry, saying how wonderful food producers have been in trying to reduce trans fats.

But no. His was not a sales talk, but actually fairly educational.

First, he qualified himself by saying that whatever he says is based on medical science, and that medical science changes, depending on the state of current knowledge. “So don’t take it as the Bible,” he advised.

As an example, he said he grew up believing that saturated fats were bad and polyunsaturated oils were good. But in the course of his work – he had been involved in the edible oils industry for 36 years, if I heard it correctly – he realised that polyunsaturated oils also cause health problems – because they are highly reactive and spoil easily.

Ah! At least, here is something that might be new to people who all along had been depending on the HPB as their main source of information and enlightenment.

In fact, Mr Wong contradicted the dietician from the HPB, who very simplistically classified saturated fats as “bad” and polyunsaturated oils as “good”.

But… one must not contradict one’s host too much. And so Mr Wong concluded that “the worst thing” is neither saturated fat, nor trans fat, but the combination of saturated fat with trans fat and cholesterol – which he named as the “third devil”.

Sorry I fully disagree with this. To me, the real devils are the dieticians, nutritionists, doctors, health authorities and other so-called experts who accept, at face value, the idea that saturated fats and cholesterol are harmful, without looking deeper into the issue to discover that they are actually beneficial to health!

_______

The most significant revelation from Mr Wong, however, is this:

There is no hydrogenation plant in Singapore or Malaysia. The margarine / shortening made here and in Malaysia are not hydrogenated but mostly made by a different process called factorisation.

(Not totally clear what that involves, will confirm and report later. Also, must check brands like Planta margarine and see whether it says hydrogenated. Update: Oops! The process is called fractionation, not fractorisation.)

Another lesser known fact from Mr Wong:

Regular cooking oils like palm, canola, etc also contain trans fats that are formed during the process of refining and deodorisation. This is mentioned in Udo Erasmus’ book, Fats that kill Fats that heal and also in some of the ariticles by Mary Enig. But I don’t think many people know this.

However, Mr Wong also provided some figures. For palm oil, it is around 0.5 percent. For oils like canola, it is as high as 3 or 4 percent. The difference is due to the fact that palm oil is quite highly saturated (about 50 percent) and so there is not a lot of polyunsaturated oils to hydrogenate. In contrast, canola oil is highly polyunsaturated and so trans fats form more easily.

_______

Questions and Answers time after the three presentations were slightly more interesting. But some of the more pertinent questions (eg those relating to government policy on trans fat labelling) were not answered satisfactorily. More reports on that later.

Overall, I would rate the forum maybe 3/10… What’s your rating Saltwetfish and others present?

But here and there there were a few points of interest. Rather than put them all here in one long post, I will discuss them over the next few days.

Watch this blog.