Experts: Not easy to replace key source of artificial trans-fat, but it can be done

Partially hydrogenated oils, which Singapore is banning, are indicated on food labels as trans-fat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil. — TODAY pic
Partially hydrogenated oils, which Singapore is banning, are indicated on food labels as trans-fat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 12 — The move in Singapore to ban the artificial trans-fat known as partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) might not be easy on food manufacturers, but it can be done, experts said.

One company, Fuji Oil Singapore, is proof of this — it began looking into eliminating PHOs from its products six years ago.

The company supplies oils, spreads and other food ingredients to distributors, restaurant chains and bakeries such as Mos Burger and Four Leaves.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said last week that it will be consulting industry players to work out how to put the ban in force, with details to be announced at a later stage.

Alan Foo, Fuji Oil Asia’s director of its Asia Research and Development Centre, told TODAY in an email interview that the process to fully remove PHOs from its products took about two years.

While it is now ahead of the curve, it was not an easy task to find a suitable replacement for PHO at first, he said.

“It is not easy to replace PHO in certain types of products because PHO is highly stable against oxidation and it imparts good texture and functionality to our products,” Foo said.

He added that “a lot of hard work and (research and development) time was spent in product reformulation and application trials” with its customers.

Over time, the company developed alternative oils and fats, using methods such as separation, modification, or blending different vegetable oils.

Fuji Oil decided to embark on this journey six years ago as studies began showing that trans-fat increases heart disease and stroke risks, Foo said.

About 30 per cent of its products were affected, he added.

When asked if the investment led to an increase or decrease in the prices of Fuji Oil’s products, he would only say: “The price of the replacement product is dependent mainly on actual raw material and processing costs involved.”

Speaking in Parliament last week during a debate on MOH’s budget, Amrin Amin, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health, said that the ban on PHOs “should not have an adverse effect on Singaporeans’ food options and cost”.

He added that MOH has consulted the food industry here and it is “generally supportive”.

MOH said that fewer than 10 per cent of food products in the market today contain PHOs.

Others can do the same

Nutritionists told TODAY that Fuji Oil’s success in replacing PHOs shows that other food manufacturers can do the same, too.

Alvernia Chua, a senior dietitian at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics, told TODAY: “In countries such as Denmark, where a similar ban was imposed, food companies overcame the challenge by successfully finding substitutes for PHOs while not compromising nutritional quality, taste and texture.”

Gladys Wong, the senior principal dietitian at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, noted that from as early as 2004, she and her team have been teaching their patients about the ill effects of consuming processed food containing trans-fat.

It was around that time that the United States declared a war against trans-fat, she recalled.

Experts and regulators here were aware of it, but Singapore has had to tread carefully and not rush to do the same, because it relies on imports and is also a commercial hub for food manufacturers and food technologists, she added.

She also noted that the move to ban PHOs from the food supply now is “less painful”.

Countries such as Canada, the US and Thailand have already banned the ingredient, so imported food products from these countries will already meet Singapore’s new standards.

What to look out for

Chua told TODAY that on food labels, PHOs are indicated as trans-fat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil.

They are found in food products such as:

• Baked goods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, doughnuts, muffins and breads

• Snacks such as potato, corn or tortilla chip

• Deep-fried foods

• Fast food

• Non-dairy coffee creamers

• Trans fat that occurs in natural foods

MOH said in response to TODAY’s queries that natural trans-fat is found in dairy products and red meats such as beef and lamb.

Still, even if one does not consume PHOs by adopting a plant-based diet, nutritionists cautioned that other factors will still put consumers at risk of other ailments.

Wong said: “Trans-fat-free foods are not guilt-free foods. So even if a curry puff (was deep-fried using) trans-fat-free oil, (it) will still have the amount of oil and saturated fats and calories in tow.

“If you eat three cream crackers that claim to be ‘trans-fat free’, you will still be consuming at least 100 calories plus the fat content of the crackers, which could be saturated fats.” — TODAY

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