Chemically modified fats are common in processed foods. A process called hydrogenation is often used to convert liquid oils into solids, and partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are commonly used to help extend the shelf life of food products and stabilize their flavours. PHOs are now recognized to be bad for health, as they contain trans fats, which can increase our cholesterol levels.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a statement proclaiming PHOs, the primary source of added trans fatty acids (TFAs) in processed foods, as being not ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) for human consumption. Food manufacturers in the country have been given 3 years to remove PHOs from their formulations.
Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s Acting Commissioner said, “The FDA’s action on this major source of added trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans. This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
We asked Nutrition Society of Malaysia president, Tee E Siong, PhD, for his views on the use of PHOs and their use in the Malaysian setting. When asked about the evidence against PHOs and their use in food preparation, Tee said: “The scientific evidence for the hazards of TFAs in foods is strong. There is conclusive evidence that TFAs increase the risk of coronary heart disease. “
Tee added, however, that the FDA site has not cited the opinions of other international agencies such as FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), WHO and Codex Alimentarius (an inter-governmental body developing international food standards). “For example, the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health (2004) has highlighted the importance of eliminating the intake of TFAs.” Codex Alimentarius also discussed the mandatory labelling of TFAs, but there was no agreement at that time.
As for similar steps being undertaken in the country, Tee said the Food Safety and Quality Division of MOH, which is the authority in charge of food safety in Malaysia, has considered and is fully aware of the hazards of TFAs to human health. The use of PHOs in foods for children is prohibited. He added: “It is specifically prohibited in formulated milk powder for children (previously known as ‘growing up milk’) and processed cereal-based foods for children.”
When asked about the existence of local studies linking the use of PHOs to cardiovascular disease, Tee said: “I do not know of any local studies linking TFAs to cardiovascular disease ... but I do not think such (local) studies are important. There is sufficient international data (already).”
Tee said the hazards of TFA and PHO in the country are probably more attenuated compared to many other countries due to the fact that Malaysians utilize palm oil for cooking and food manufacturing. “Palm oil does not need to be hydrogenated and its TFA is practically nil. PHOs are formed when polyunsaturated oils are used eg, soy, olive and sunflower.
Tee said: “Nevertheless, what would be important in the country is to study the amount of TFAs in the foods people consume, and estimate its exposure to Malaysians [including] children, women and adults. We need to understand if food industries, including small industries, are truly using minimal amounts of PHOs.”
Smart Balance. Available at www.smartbalance.com/nutrition/topics/hydrooils