Trans fats likely to stay on Hong Kong menus despite a US ban
Despite a US ban, artery-clogging artificial trans fats are likely to remain part of local menus, writes Nan-Hie In
Even as the United States moves to outlaw artery-clogging, artificial trans fatty acids from its food, consumers shouldn't expect a ban in Hong Kong any time soon.
Legislative Council member Joseph Lee Kok-long, who represents the health services functional constituency, says he is reluctant to ban trans fats because it could affect the city's bakeries and fast food industry by adding to their costs.
He says partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, the major source of trans fats, are commonly used to improve the texture and shelf life of baked goods.
"If [food producers] have to use alternatives, it may increase the price of the food items, which might have an impact on the public," says Lee, who also heads the nursing and health studies division at the Open University of Hong Kong.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took the first step towards eliminating most trans fats from food by revoking the "generally recognised as safe" status of partially hydrogenated oils. If that preliminary status is confirmed, these oils will be considered additives that cannot be used in foods without approval. This means foods containing trans fats cannot be sold.
News of the American ban has led other countries to consider similar action. In Australia, health experts and officials urged a ban. In contrast, an official from the China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment told China Daily the mainland would not follow suit because Chinese diets included few trans fats.
Not all trans fats are bad. Natural forms in the milk and meat of ruminant animals, such as cattle, goats and sheep, may improve health, according to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Alberta's metabolic and cardiovascular diseases laboratory.
Industrially produced trans fats are linked to heart disease. The FDA says a complete ban on partially hydrogenated oils could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year. "The detrimental effect was found in studies where an increase in trans fat by 2per cent of the total calories of your diet will increase your cardiovascular disease risk by 23percent," says June Chan, senior dietitian at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital.
"In comparison to saturated fat, an increase in 2 per cent in saturated fat is only correlated to an increase of 2 per cent in heart disease risk."
Artificial trans fats are primarily produced by the industrial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, a process that solidifies them, extending the lifespan of the food they are added to. They are also cheaper to buy than saturated animal fats such as butter. These two reasons have seen their use proliferate in processed foods such as desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas and coffee creamers.
Margarine is also produced by hydrogenation. In the 1980s, many food manufacturers and consumers switched from butter to margarine because of concerns about butter's high saturated fat content.
In the past two decades, however, studies have shown trans fats to be a bigger coronary clogger than saturated fats. The synthetic fat raises low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol, in the blood and decreases the "good" variety, high-density lipoprotein.
In 2003, the FDA ruled that artificial trans fats contents had to be listed on food labels, a shift that prompted many manufacturers to eliminate them altogether.
Some fast food chains, such as McDonald's, found substitutes and sharply reduced their use of trans fats. The result was a fall in consumption in the US, from 4.6grams a day in 2006 to about one gram in 2012. The World Health Organisation recommends trans fats make up less than 1 per cent of energy intake, or 2.2 grams for someone consuming 2,000 calories a day.
But artificial trans fats have yet to be banned outright. Hong Kong Dietitians Association chairman Sylvia Lam endorses a ban, although she doubts it will happen soon. "The initiative of making people healthy is still not the priority of this government."
It was a lesson she learned first hand while pushing for the introduction of the Nutrition Labelling Scheme, which came into effect in 2010. She said fighting to have the law introduced was an onerous process.
Additional research on trans fats consumption is also needed, she says. "Unfortunately, there are no statistics on the consumption intake of trans fat in Hong Kong. If the government does not have these numbers, they won't do anything about it."
Chan is another advocate for a ban. "There is no benefit of trans fat nutritionally. The only benefit is from a commercial point of view."
Lee says prohibition is an arduous process - involving drafting legislation, debate and deliberation at Legco - draw flak from the food industry. He prefers a less disruptive approach, educating the public on how to limit their intake of trans fats.
Hong Kong consumers depend on regulators to enforce the monitoring of the trans fats in our food. The most effective tool is the food labelling law, which forces food manufacturers to disclose the amount of trans fats contained in packaged items.
The Centre for Food Safety and the Consumer Council also conduct tests on food.
Collectively, these efforts have resulted in trans fats removed from some foods.
The most recent assessments conducted by the centre show that the average content of trans fats in cakes, bread, pies and pastries, and other foods has declined sharply. A spokesman for the Centre for Food and Safety says the reduction reflects the food industry's achievements in reducing trans fats in food.
Unseen risk in everyday foods
Hongkongers are unwittingly consuming trans fats when they dine out or snack on the run. The trans fats in flaky pastries and deep-fried fare do not have to be disclosed. Chan suggests eating single portions, since a daily limit of just 2.2 grams is recommended.
"The safest practice is to not go over one gram [in a single sitting] because you have other foods in your daily life, which may contain trans fat." For prepackaged foods, "if you don't see a zero in trans fat, don't buy it," she says.
Typical trans fats content of bakery goods in Hong Kong
Average content in a 100 gram portion, and typical range
Croissant: 0.7 grams, 0.29 to 1.1grams
Egg tart, pie or pastry: 0.39 grams each, up to 1.1 grams
Cheesecake: 0.44 grams, 0.2 grams to 0.65 grams Tuna or curry puff: 0.7 grams, 0.37 grams to 0.92 grams
Common supermarket items with high levels of trans fats
Typical trans fats content in a 100 gram serving Bisquick pancakes: 3.8 grams Kjeldsens butter cookies: 1.3 grams
Sonton Kurogoma Cream (a black sesame seed spread): 14.8 grams
McCormick sesame salad dressing: 2.4 grams
Poppin microwave popcorn, butter flavoured: 9.5 grams
Tico's nacho and cheese: 3 grams
Sources: Centre for Food Safety; Consumer Council