Singapore is banning food made with partially hydrogenated oil – here’s what trans fat really does to your body

The ban will replace the current two per cent limit on amount of trans fat content in fats and oils sold in Singapore.
The Straits Times

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has ordered a ban on partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) as an ingredient in all locally manufactured and imported food – including fats, oils and pre-packaged food sold in Singapore – starting June 2021.

In a statement released on Thursday (June 6), the ministry said the ban on PHOs, which is a key source of artificial trans fat, is “aligned with the World Health Organisation’s recommendation” and international practices.

The Food Regulations under the Sale of Food Act will be amended to legislate the ban on PHOs, MOH said.

It also said the move is part of governmental efforts to create a healthier environment for Singaporeans.

Singapore currently enforces a 2 per cent limit on the level of trans fat content in fats and oils sold here, which has led to a cut in average daily trans fat intake among Singaporeans from 2.1g in 2010 to 1.0g in 2018, said MOH.

‘More can be done’: Nutritionist

In an email interview with Business Insider, registered nutritional therapist Josephine Ng from nutrition consultation company The Nutrition Mentor, said that the ban is a step in the right direction by MOH with regards to preventative health measures for Singaporeans.

However, more could be done by the ministry to help Singaporeans adopt healthier diets, Ng noted.

“As Singaporeans eat out a lot and most love local food in food courts and hawker centres, I feel that MOH needs to also inform and educate hawkers and consumers that vegetable oils are a source of harmful fats as these oils are often heated at high temperature (and this) turns them into trans fats,” she said.

Read also: What 12 numbers on nutrition labels mean and why you may want to pay attention to them

Ng added that the ministry could consider using incentives to get hawkers to use healthier and more heat-stable oils such as olive oil and pure coconut oil in their cooking.

She said: “Recognising the harm from the use of partially hydrogenated oils and fats from food products highlights the importance of knowing and understanding what are the ingredients that go into producing food products. We can’t always wait for health authorities to ban harmful ingredients.”

Healthier alternatives to cooking with vegetable oil include using olive or pure coconut oil.
The Straits Times

Ng suggested that Singaporeans can play their part by learning to read food labels and paying attention to the listed ingredients. Health authorities can facilitate this by ensuring proper and adequate labelling of ingredients.

What are PHOs?

PHOs that make up artificial trans fat are formed by an industrial process known as partial hydrogenation, whereby liquid oil is converted to a semi-solid state that has a longer shelf-life, MOH said.

The ministry also said that in Singapore, roughly 10 per cent of food in the high-risk categories contain PHOs.

In an article, non-profit medical centre Mayo Clinic said trans fats can be commonly found in baked goods (cakes, cookies and pie crusts), snacks (potato, corn and tortilla chips), fried food (french fries, doughnuts and fried chicken), refrigerator dough, creamer and margarine.

According to health resource portal, trans fat may be added to enhance the taste, texture and prolong the freshness of food.

Not all trans fat are of the manufactured variety either as naturally occurring ones can be found in dairy products and some meat products, added

What eating trans fat does to you

Manufactured trans fat, including partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, apparently have no known health benefits and experts recommend keeping consumption to as low as possible, Mayo Clinic said in its article.

In fact, consumption of trans fat increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes, the medical centre said.

Trans fats can be found in foods like ice cream, cakes, cookies, pizza, french fries, doughnuts, fried chicken and more.

It also comes with the unhealthy effect of increasing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and decreasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels in the body.

Mayo Clinic noted that LDL cholesterol can accumulate in the walls of arteries, making them hard and narrow. On the contrary, HDL cholesterol removes the excess cholesterol and takes it back to the liver.

Tearing or rupturing of the fatty deposits within the arteries may trigger blood clotting which inhibits blood flow to a part of the heart or brain, resulting in a heart attack or a stroke, Mayo Clinic said.

According to a health website by Harvard Medical School, even small amounts of trans fats can be harmful. With every 2 per cent of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23 per cent, Harvard said.

Researchers estimate that in the 1990s, when trans fats were widely used, they caused around 50,000 preventable deaths every year in the US, Business Insider reported.

Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rolled out a near-universal ban on trans fats.

What Singapore’s ban means for food businesses

The Ministry of Health said the move to ban partially hydrogenated oils is part of efforts to create a healthier environment for Singaporeans.
The Straits Times

Singapore’s MOH said in its statement that the June 2021 deadline will allow industries sufficient lead time to reformulate their products or acquire new product sources.

Upon enforcement of the ban, food manufacturers must ensure that PHOs are not used in their food production processes, whereas retailers and importers are required to ensure that their range of products does not contain PHOs as an ingredient.

In addition, it will remain mandatory for all food manufacturers, retailers and importers to list the ingredients on the packaging of their products sold in Singapore, MOH said.

The ministry said industries will be provided guidelines to facilitate smooth adaptation to the changes while regular market surveillance will be conducted to ensure compliance to the ban.

Statutory board Enterprise Singapore will also render support to food companies via enterprise development grants for product reformation.

To date, six companies have pledged their commitment to ensure that their products are PHO-free by June 2020. They currently account for 50 per cent of the market share across the four “high-risk” food categories – snacks, baked goods, prepared meals and fat spreads.

The companies are:

  • Gardenia Foods (S) Pte Ltd
  • Nestle Singapore (Pte) Ltd
  • NTUC Fairprice Co-Operative
  • Prime Supermarket Ltd
  • Sheng Siong Group Pte Ltd
  • Sunshine Bakeries

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