Archive for the ‘health promotion board’ Category

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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:

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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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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.