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.