Archive for the ‘food labelling’ Category


The kampong chicken factory

June 3, 2007

What do you understand by “kapong chicken”?

If, like me, you believe it refers to chickens that roam about freely in kampongs (villages) – that is, the local equivalent of free-range, more or less organic, chicken –as opposed to those kept in cages in factory farms, well, you will be in for a disappointment and a shock.

According to more than one kampong chicken seller at the wet markets whom I have spoken to, there are at least two types of kampong chicken – the “real” type and the “fake” type.

The real type costs about $8.50 to $9 per kg and is a much bigger bird, so you will have to end up paying maybe $15 or more for a chicken. At the Ang Mo Kio Ave 4 market that I sometimes go to, this is called “mountain chicken”.

The one that generally sells for $5.50 per bird, in wet markets and supermarkets, is the fake type. These chickens are reared in cages in factory farms, where up to tens of thousands of chickens are confined in a covered shed. They do not get exercise or sunlight. Presumably, they are also regularly given antibiotics, because chickens raised under such conditions cannot be allowed to get sick. If one does, the sickness will quickly spread to the rest of the factory farm and tens of thousands of chickens will be destroyed.

So why are these “fake” kampong chickens called kampong chickens?

“They are the same species as kampong chicken,” the chicken seller at the market explained.

And so we have another case of misleading food labelling / food description that our health authorities seem to allow.




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.


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.


Hydroponics / aeroponics are “natural”. Period.

March 15, 2007

In any discussion / debate / argument, we may sometimes reach a point where we feel there is simply no point in pursuing the subject further, because the other person is either on a totally different wavelength, or being absolutely unreasonable.

I reached that point this morning (technically speaking, yesterday morning as it’s past midnight as I write this) when I read the following letter in the ST Forum:

Labelling of vegetables

I REFER to the letter, ‘Organic labelling for vegetables misleading’ (ST, March 12). The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority does not object to the use of the words ‘natural’ and ‘grown naturally’ to describe fresh fruit and vegetables produced using aeroponics or hydroponics, as these methods of farming adopt the same basic principles as conventional farming.

The methods of farm production are also not required by the Food Regulations to be labelled on prepacked fresh fruit and vegetables. However, fresh fruit and vegetables which are labelled as ‘organic’, ‘organically produced’ or words of similar meanings should meet the standards established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission for organically produced food.

Goh Shih Yong
Assistant Director
Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority


The above was in reply to my letter published on Monday, about organic labelling of vegetables at the NTUC Fairprice Xtra hypermarket in Ang Mo Kio.

I was stunned and left speechless to read Mr Goh’s response. If our (highly paid) senior civil servants wish to assert that vegetables grown in water or grown suspended in air are “natural”, then I really don’t know what else to say.

Perhaps some of you who are less stunned and speechless than I would take the discussion to the next, higher or lower, level. Or maybe in a day or two, I might recover sufficiently to think of something non-expletive to say.

For now, let me share with you what I discovered this morning.

I went to and typed in “natural”. I was led to 22 results, of which the first had 38 meanings and definitions. The closest that comes to explaining how vegetables grown in air or water might possibly be considered natural was definition #34:

An idiot!


Organic labelling at Fairprice still misleading

March 12, 2007

Some time back, I wrote about Fairprice Xtra hypermarket at Ang Mo Kio changing its misleading “Organic” signboard at its vegetables section to “Specialty Vegetables”.

I wrote then that Fairprice did the right thing to avoid misleading shoppers, but it seems that their staff still don’t know or don’t care about the difference between organic and non-organic, between natural and unnatural.

So I thought it was time to raise the issue in the press rather than just gently informing the staff. Below is my letter on the subject, published today in The Straits Times Forum:

WHEN FairPrice Xtra hypermarket opened in Ang Mo Kio, it had a big sign in the vegetable section that said ‘Organic’.

However, only about one-quarter of the fruit and vegetables there are organic. The rest include conventional vegetables, presumably grown with chemical fertilisers, as well as hydroponic and aeroponic vegetables grown in water and air respectively.

Twice I pointed out to staff that the sign was misleading, because hydroponic and aeroponic vegetables are grown in unnatural ways, using chemical solutions or sprays as fertilisers.

On my third visit, the sign had been changed to ‘Speciality Vegetables’.

I thought FairPrice had done the right thing, but closer examination revealed it had not. Beneath the sign were smaller labels classifying vegetables as ‘organic’, as well as ‘salad’, ‘mushrooms’ and ‘tomatoes’. Under the ‘organic’ section, there were still hydroponic and aeroponic vegetables.

Why not label hydroponic and aeroponic vegetables accordingly? Is it because they have no selling point, unlike ‘organic’?

Meanwhile, one brand of aeroponic vegetables, which is claimed to be air flown from Europe and packed in Singapore, is described as ‘grown naturally in air’.

Will the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) clarify whether food labelling laws allow aeroponic or hydroponic vegetables to be described as ‘natural’ or ‘grown naturally ‘?


HPB Trans fat forum

March 10, 2007

Finally, the Health Promotion Board and Consumers’ Association are doing their bit to educate Singaporeans about trans fats.

They are jointly organising a forum on the subject next Saturday, March 17 at the HDB Auditorium at Toa Payoh (no typo here, HDB as in Housing Development Board Auditorium).

There will be a session in Chinese from 1 to 3 pm, and a session in English from 5 to 7 pm. Hope to see some of you there.

Programme as follows:

Fat is a nutrient necessary for health. But not all fats are the same. Come and learn about the different types of fats (including trans fat), their effects on health, as well as how you can make healthier choices for yourself.

– Mr Lim Meng Thiam, Dietitian, Health Promotion Board

This session serves to inform the public of the general labelling requirements for prepacked foods sold in Singapore. It aims to provide consumers with a good understanding of the information stated in food labels, so that they may have a better informed choice when selecting food products for themselves and their families. The use of nutrition and health claims for food products will also be covered.

– Ms Diana Lee, Food Control Division, Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority


Find out the function of fats and oils in food preparation, how trans fat is produced during food processing and how do the food manufacturers help consumers in reducing intake of fat/oil.

– Mr Wong Mong Hong, Deputy President, Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association

Admission is free. Registration in advance is preferred. A confirmation will be sent to you upon registration to confirm your place. Kindly note that unregistered participants will only be admitted to the forum based on availability.

Interested participants, please email, fax or mail your name, IC and contact number to :

Attn: Trans fat Forum


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!