Archive for the ‘trans fat labelling’ Category

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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.

——

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.

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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:

GET YOUR FATS RIGHT
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

UNDERSTANDING FOOD LABELS
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

HOW FOOD MANUFACTURERS HELP CONSUMERS REDUCE THEIR INTAKE OF FAT AND TRANS FAT

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
Email: transfat@case.org.sg

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Wife cakes “no trans fat” in Chinatown

February 17, 2007

I was in Chinatown earlier today and guess what I saw? A signboard saying “No trans fat”.

It was an advertising slogan for a stall selling cashew nuts, called Dan-D-Pak. It’s produced in Vietnam and exported to Canada and they have cashews in garlic, wasabi, salted, unsalted and other flavours.

So it also comes with a Nutrition Facts Label that states ‘Trans 0 g”. And for products sold in Canada, you can be assured that “No trans fat” mean not more than 0.2 gram trans fat per serving, versus 0.5 gram for US products. Because Canadian trans fat labelling laws are stricter on this.

I bought a packet. I had already wanted to buy before I saw the “No trans fat” sign, since nuts are not supposed to contain trans fats anyway, unless they have been fried in hydrogenated oils.

These guys sure know how to cash in on a selling point. They are obviously jumping onto the bandwagon, which, in itself, is not a bad thing. It is a sign that awareness about trans fats has risen – a good sign.

The nuts, however, I found to be just so so…

—————-

My more interesting discovery in Chinatown was a Hongkong pastry shop called Da Sheng. The pastries looked good and I was about to buy when I noticed a Sunday Times review posted near the counter.

The review, by Foong Woei Wan and published on 28 January, raved about the shop’s century egg pastry: “The pastry is light and crumbly and the lotus seed paste tastes subtle and far from cloying. There is also a generous heap of cubed century egg inside each pastry.”

Unfortunately, they were sold out, so I bought the “wife cake” or “wife biscuit”. This is a pastry with winter melon filling and the reviewer had described them as “decent”.

To me, they were great. They were by far the best wife biscuit I have ever eaten. Admittedly, I have not eaten enough wife biscuits to proclaim myself a connoisseur, but they were just so much better than others that I ever eaten before.

They lady who sold them to me – she seemed to be the boss – was quite chatty, so I asked her about the oil used. In particular, I asked if they used pork lard, because I remember my ex-neighbour, whose family runs one of Singapore’s most established mookcake businesses, telling me that Chinese-style cookies taste much better when made with pork lard.

Also, as I later recalled, such Chinese style pastries were called, in my Teochew dialect, lar pia, meaning “lard biscuit”.

“Vegetable oil,” the lady said and she pointed to a signboard that said something like “100% vegetable oil” and “healthy”.

“Not margarine?” I asked.

(Incidentally, I think it is a good idea that we – those of us who are against trans fat – keep asking whether food producers use margarine. When we ask often enough, they will get the message that we don’t want margarine.)

“No. Vegetable oil,” she replied.

“Wouldn’t it taste better with lard than with vegetable oil?”

“It’s not the lard or oil, it’s the kung fu (expertise),” she ventured.

Well, I am not going to argue with that. Her chef obviously has great kung fu.

I also bought a water chestnut cake from Da Sheng. This is like a firm jelly, made with water chestnut pieces, water chestnut flour (which is starchy) and sugar. It, too, was delicious.

And they are trans fat free 🙂

In fact, all traditional cakes, pastries, biscuits, kueh, etc are all trans fat free – provided they are made the original way.

Da Sheng is at 36 Sago Street, on the side of Chinatown facing South Bridge Road / Neil Road – that is, facing away from People’s Park.

I will be going back another day, for more wife biscuits (80 cents), water chestnut cakes ($8 but currently on special offer at $5) and the much touted century egg pastry (60 cents).

All trans fat free.

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Trans fat labelling mathematics: 0.4 x 5 = 0?

February 14, 2007

Yesterday, there was a letter in the ST Forum by YCK, who regularly contributes comments on this blog. YCK asked some pertinent questions and his letter provided me with an opportunity to put in another question that had been on my mind all along.

My question / letter was published today in the ST Forum Online. Here it is:

 

Trans fat labelling: A mathematical poser

Here is another question to add to the list provided by Mr Yeo Chow Khoon in his letter, ‘Some questions remain on trans fat labelling.’ (ST 13 Feb).

My question is this: How much is 0.4 x 5? Is it 2, as we would expect it to be, or can the answer also be 0?

Under US laws on trans fat labelling, which our health authorities seem to be have adopted as their guidelines, a product that contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving shall (meaning “must”) declare the trans fat content as “0 gram.”

Thus, a product with, say, 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving will be labelled “0 gram” trans fat.

However, some nutrition facts labels also state the content of various ingredients per 100 grams. So if the serving size is, say, 20 grams, then 100 grams will consist of five servings.

In such a situation, will the trans fat content per 100 grams also show as “0 grams”?

Questions such as this are important because many food manufacturers have made their serving sizes ridiculously small in order to label them “no trans fat”.

For example, the serving size for potato chips ranges from about 18 to 28 grams, or 1/7 to 1/5 of a packet. The serving size for margarine is 20 grams, or about 1 teaspoonful, barely enough to spread very thinly over a slice of bread.

How many people actually restrict themselves to such absurdly small servings?

The US introduced trans fat labelling on 1 January 2006 but health advocates and consumers there continue to complain about various legal loopholes that allow food manufacturers to hide trans fats.

Food labelling is very often confusing. As Mr Yeo rightly pointed out, “even the most eagle-eyed, educated and self-reliant consumer cannot be certain what he is buying.”

This is why two US cities – New York and Philadelphia – have decided to ban trans fats and many more cities and states are set to follow.

Over in Denmark, trans fats have been banned since 1 January 2004. As far as I am aware, no one there is complaining.

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Philadelphia bans trans fats – more to follow

February 10, 2007

I was about to give an update about the trans fat situation in the US when the news broke that Philadelphia has become the second major US city – after New York – to ban trans fats.

The trans fat ban in Philadelphia will take effect on 1 September 2007. Restaurants will no longer be allowed to fry foods with hydrogenated oils, nor to serve margarine spreads.

You may have read the story on page 45 of our MSM, The Straits Times. I am not complaining, just pointing out that the story appeared on page 45 in the World section. This is not front page news material and anyway the story received considerable coverage.

What’s significant is that in Philadelphia – as well as in New York in December 2006 – legislators voted unanimously to impose a ban on trans fats. Everyone agreed that a ban was in order.

Here in Singapore, our health authorities seem to think in the opposite way and everyone seems to agree that there is no need to take strong measures to curb the consumption of trans fat.

It is because, as the health authorities claim and the newspapers duly reported, that “Singaporeans eat the least amount of this artery-clogging substance in the world”?

This statement is simply not true. The Koreans eat less than 1/10th as much trans fats as Singaporeans. Yet they thought it necessary to introduce trans fat labelling.

Taiwan, too, has announced it would introduce trans fat labelling. Although I don’t have trans fat consumption figures for Taiwan, I am pretty sure it is lower than in Singapore.

And I can bet you that the trans fat consumption levels for Hong Kong, mainland China and our Southeast Asian neighbours are lower than ours too. I don’t have the figures to prove this. Also in India, and most, if not all, the African countries.

Let’s just say it is my guess. If anyone has the official figures, do let me know.

More and more, we are moving in the direction of an American-style diet, with lots of fast foods as well as commercially mass produced bread, cakes, pastries and biscuits… all containing trans fats. Yet our health authorities claim that tran fats is “a small problem” here. They are simply refusing to acknowledge the problem, not even the potential problem.

 

USA update

Anyway, here is the USA update that I promised earlier on.

Several other US cities are currently considering a ban on trans fats, including Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Louisville. More than that, however, at least 12 US states have called for bans on trans fat:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia

“By forcing some of the world’s largest food chains and restaurants to use healthier alternatives in their food preparation, New York City has paved the way for what I hope will be a national movement to improve health quality of the food we eat in restaurants,” said Connecticut Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore John McKinney (R) in December when he announced his co-sponsorship of a similar bill for the Connecticut General Assembly.

Three states – California, New Hampshire and New York – have suggested that the ban apply to both school cafeterias and restaurants.

Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia will consider proposals to prohibit trans fats in schools.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island are focused on eliminating trans fats in restaurants.

Reorts coming from the US add that trans fat is an issue that has support from both the Republican and Democrats. Politics don’t come into play here. In Massachusetts, a Democrat proposed a trans fat ban, while in California, a Republican lawmaker took the lead. The New York City ban initiated by Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Also, the New York experience has been that asking restaurants to voluntarily eliminate trans fat did not work.

Erica Lessem, spokeswoman for New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that after efforts were made in 2005 to encourage restaurants to drop trans fats, “use (of trans fats) remained common and has not declined substantially, despite the Trans Fat Education Campaign.”

This was no doubt due to the fact that, unlike packaged food, restaurant food were not affected by US trans fat labelling laws that came into effect on 1 Janaury 2006.

Said Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): “When trans fats labeling went into effect in the supermarket, large food manufacturers competed against each other to see who could get rid of artificial trans fat the fastest. But restaurants didn’t have labeling as an incentive to change so they’ve needed other incentives: a lawsuit here, a municipal phase-out proposal there.”

Meanwhile, here’s what my Singaporen friend living in Boulder, Colarado, has to say about us in Singapore debating the trans fat issue: “Can’t imagine people still dialoguing about it. Here, it is a straight no no.”

 

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NTUC Fairprice: Trans fat labelling or slogan-ing?

February 8, 2007

I don’t like being a wet blanket, but I must say I did not get overly excited when I read a while ago that NTUC Fairprice will ‘label’ some of its new housebrand products “trans fat free”.

It was funny how I came across the news, however. I found it at The Straight Times Forum, a site that encourages people to post well-written letters that got rejected by The Straits Times Forum. I was wondering who had written an unpublished letter about trans fats, when I realised it was a news story posted, at 1816 hrs, by Channel News Asia. Click here to read the full story.

I was not overly excited because

  • I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. “Trans fat free” has become a hot band wagon that supermarket chains are only too happy to jump on, once they have an opportunity.
  • Looking at the photograph posted on the CNA website, none of the NTUC Fairprice “trans fat free” items looks like I would eat them. None looked healthy – commercially produced bread, instant noodles, regular cooking oil, biscuits….

But come to think of it, I had already seen the trans fat free “label” on a bottle of NTUC Fairprice cooking oil about a week ago.

    For a while just now, I wondered if the journalist in me had missed a scoop? I could have, yet again, been the first to report the news before the MSM (main stream media) did. But I didn’t think much of the “labelling” when I saw it on the shelf the other day. I thought it was interesting that Fairprice had already jumped onto the bandwagon; I did not think it was worth shouting about

    What Fairprice has done is not so much labelling, but what I call slogan-ing.

    Let me explain the difference. Labelling is where, within the limits allowed by the law, a food manufacturer tells the facts as they are — for example, whether a product contains 0.4 grams or 0.6 grams of trans fats per serving.

    Slogan-ing is when a quality — such as “trans fat free” — is highlighted for the sake of attracting consumer attention. It is a marketing gimmick.

    Labelling is compulsory — except when the law grants an exemption, such as when products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats are, under US trans fat labelling laws, exempted from being declared. Note, however, that Canadian trans fat labelling laws grant exemption only for products with lessthan 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving.

    But whatever the case, once labelling is legislated, then ALL products must be labelled accordingly.

    Slogan-ing, in contrast, is entirely voluntary. A manufacturer puts up a slogan only when it serves its purpose.

    Another vital difference is this: Labelling, to some extent, serves the consumer. Slogan-ing serves the manufacturer and retailer.

    Also, as I explained in my earlier post and website article about “positive labelling” (at that time I had not yet coined the term slogan-ing), a label that states “trans fat free” does not guarantee that the product is healthy.

    Instead, it could mean:

    • The product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. And you need to pay careful attention to the serving size. Some manufacturers make their serving sizes so small that the average person would easily eat two or three or more servings at one go.
    • The product contains fully hydrogenated oils, or interesterified fat. It’s true that these contain no trans fat. But it’s not true that they do no harm. In fact, scientists are beginning to discover that interesterified fat is even more harmful than trans fat, especially in causing diabetes.
    • In the case of regular cooking oils like corn, soybean, etc, even though they contain no trans fat, they are harmful in other ways because these oils had been extracted at high temperature. The high temperature makes such oils rancid. They are full of free radicals which damage cells, accelerate aging and lead to degenerative diseases.
    • Also in the case of regular cooking oils, the “trans fat free” slogan is actually meaningless because these oils are not supposed to contain trans fats anyway. But actually they do contain very small amounts, formed during the process of deodorisation to remove the rancid smell.

    Now you see why I am not too hot about “trans fat free” slogan-ing.

    Even if it is proper labelling, I am not too hot about it. A study done recently in Australia by the NSW Food Authority found that the mandatory nutrition information that appears on all processed foods “is often inaccurate and misleading”.

    Firstly, there is a margin of error of about +/- 20 percent.

    But even allowing for this 20 per cent margin of error, as many as 84 per cent of labels incorrectly stated the quantity of at least one component.

    Now here comes the shocker… The study found that in one brand of potato chips, the amount of trans fat was 13 times higher than claimed on the label. Click here to read a Sydney Morning Herald report about the study, titled Big Fat Lie: Food labels hiding the truth.

    Even if labelling is done properly and accurately, it is well known that most consumers do not read food labels and that those who read often do not understand what they read.

    Steen Stender, the man who got Denmark to ban trans fats, has this to say about trans fat labelling: “You can put poison in food, if you label it properly. Here in Denmark, we remove the poison and people don’t have to know anything about trans fatty acids.”