06/03/19: Singapore to ban partially hydrogenated oils, form of trans fat found in snacks and baked goods

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Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), an ingredient which is a major source of artificial trans fat found in food like margarine, potato chips and fast foods will be banned by the Ministry of Health (MOH), Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health Amrin Amin said in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 6).

Speaking during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate, he said that artificial trans fat is harmful to health.

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), artificial trans fat increases the risk of heart disease and has no known health benefits. WHO has called for countries to remove artificial trans fat from the food supply,” he said.

MOH said that there are four categories of food products that are likely to contain PHOs – snacks, baked goods, prepared meals and fat spreads. Across these four categories, it is estimated that less than 10 per cent of products in the market currently contain PHOs.

There are already existing restrictions on trans fat, including PHOs. Food manufacturers are required by law to declare and limit the amount of trans fat in cooking oil and fats. This resulted in local trans fat intake reducing by half from about two grammes per day in 2010 to 1 gram per day in 2018, Mr Amrin said.

“It is timely to build on this,” he said.

Singapore would be following the example of the United States, Canada, and Thailand in banning PHOs.

However, banning manufacturers from using PHOs should not have an adverse effect on Singaporeans’ food options and cost, Mr Amrin added. MOH has consulted the local food industry, who are generally supportive, he said. He also said the industry will be given time to make the adjustments.

A MOH spokesperson said that banning PHOs and eliminating artificial trans fat from Singaporeans’ diet, is feasible with the use of alternatives such as sunflower and canola oil, which are unsaturated and healthier based on consultations with the industry.

PHOs COMMON INGREDIENT IN MANUFACTURING OF PROCESSED FOODS

Senior dietitian at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics Ms Alvernia Chua said a common ingredient used in the manufacturing of processed foods, PHOs improve the taste and texture of these foods and also increase flavour stability.

She added that these oils can withstand repeated heating without breaking down, making them ideal for deep-frying and fast foods.

“Most PHOs are created by an industrial process called hydrogenation, in which hydrogen molecules are added to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature,” she explained.

She cautioned however that misconceptions could arise from the intended ban, leading to consumers choosing butter over margarine as the healthier option.

“This is also not recommended as butter, while not containing PHOs, is high in saturated fats. The healthier choice is to opt for soft margarine that is both PHO-free and higher in unsaturated fats,” she said.

Drawing reference from Denmark, Ms Chua said that a ban aimed at reducing PHOs in food products may reduce the rates of heart disease and stroke over time in the population. In Denmark, the first country to impose such a ban in 2004, the rate of mortality from heart disease has been falling.

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