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.


  1. I am anxious to keep hearing and reading your blog, thanks for sharing this!

    As I reviewed the research while writing on cancer prevention, the lag time between research, and anything being done to change things, surprised me. In 1997 a study showed that the amount of partially hydrogenated fat in a woman’s buttocks predicted her susceptibility to develop breast cancer in the future (Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Control), and a study in 2002 linked trans fats with the development of breast cancer (same journal), yet the American public heard little about trans fats until they were placed on nutrition labels.

    Is this your experience in the rest of the world?

    Lynne Eldridge M.D.
    Author, “Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time”

  2. Dear Dr Eldridge,

    Thanks for posting and sharing. You will be surprised how loooooong the time lag actually is.

    SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE about the harm of trans fats began to surface as long ago as the early 1970s, in the reesearch of people like Fred Kummerow of the University of Illinois. By the late 1970s, Mary Eniq was highlighting the dangers to health authorities in the US.

    But it goes back even further.

    SUSPICION about the harm of trans fats dates back to the 1950s. Among other people. Ancel Keys, the “great scientist” who popularised the idea that saturated fats and cholesterol are harmful, had already speculated in the 1950s that trans fats were the cause of heart diesease etc.

    Unfortunately, he and other scientists of his day went on to pursue the saturated fats idea and dropped trans fats.

    And finally…

    WARNINGS about the dangers of trans fats could have been sounded as early as 1939!

    One of the first people to warn about the dangers of hydrogenated oils was the health writer Adele Davis. My friend tells me that she advised against eating hydrogenated oils in a 1939 edition of her book. I cannot confirm this, but know that her later books definitely talked about the subject.

    So we are either 30, 55 or 70 years behind time, depending on how we look at it.

    Elsewhere in the world? While Americans, Danes and others have woken up to the dangers of trans fats, most in Asia are still fast asleep! Zzzzzzzz!

  3. I think I rate it also 3/10 because we did learn something new, like cheap shortening is made from palm oil’s factorisation process and not hydrogenation process.

    My jaw almost drop after the presentation by Mr. Lim from HPB, where trans fat was mentioned only as a cursory subject rather than the main subject and he keeps harping on the harmfulness of saturated fats. Look like HPB have not really listened, its just another of those “I hear you, I pretend to do something useful, now you happy?”.

    I am happy that the AVA women said she will take up my suggestion to get the bread manufacturer to have clearer labelling instead of “unhydrogenated veg. shortening” or “pure veg. shortening”.

    For Mr. Wong (not me, the guy from SFMA), I totally disagree with him that both saturated and trans fat are equally bad. Based on recommended proportions along trans fat is 10x worst than saturated fats, at least. Not only that it has no function in our body and does nothing but harm, just like taking slow poison.

    I feel disappointed that I did not collect my thoughts well enough for a second Q&A. I wanted to ask if the garmen is more willing to put our lives in danger by not banning trans fat because of monetary losses? I also forgot to highlight the recent study the shows that just 2g(??) of transfat per day can lead to infertility in women. Will try harder next time, if ever! I wonder what the Chinese forum is like.

  4. Thanks for the updates. It means a lot as I could not attend the forum myself 🙂

  5. Aspartame is apparently far more interesting. I have decided to totally stop using after doing some checks. It is not that it is definitely harmful but the effects are far more uncertain that it usually is for substances approved by the FDA.


  6. Yes, aspartame is more “interesting”. Apparently, it is the most controversial substance ever to be approved by the US FDA.

    One of the websites I’ve planned is http://www.stop-aspartame.com but no time to work on that at the moment.

  7. Good info on trans fat.

  8. I really thought I knew enough about what I should eat till someone pointed about trans fat and hydrogenated oil. Now I am really concerned after reading about they hydrogenated coconut oil being tested on animal and it’s not so okay result. I checked my Nestle non-dairy creamer I drink with my nescafe everyday 3-4 cups full, my god ! the content says “Hydrogenated palm kernel oil” ! Someone pointed out there is no hydrogenation plant Malaysia or Singapore, so this creamer must be a “gift” some other country.Yesterday I started drinking my coffee in black….Should I be worried ?

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