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What are Partially-hydrogenated oils (PHOs)?

PHOs are most commonly known as trans fat – a type of fat formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats (shortening and hard margarine). They are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil (hydrogenation process) to increase shelf-life and flavor stability of foods.

Trans fats are mostly found in pre-packaged foods such as cookies, pastries, baked goods, pies, potato chips, instant noodles, frozen pizzas, frozen meals, margarine, spreads and non-dairy coffee creamers, etc.

Why are PHOs bad?

PHOs contain trans fatty acids. These trans fats upset the balance between the good and bad cholesterol levels in your body, by both raising the bad and lowering the good. This is linked to lifestyle diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Singapore’s national average daily trans fat intake was 1g per person per day in 2018, a significant drop from 2.1g per person per day in 2010. There is no safe level of consumption of trans fat. Studies have shown that a 4g increase in daily trans fat intake is associated with a 23% increase in the incidence of cardiovascular disease.

In Singapore, it is estimated that about 10% of pre-packaged snacks, baked goods, prepared meals and fat spreads currently contain PHOs.

Alternatives to PHOs?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), PHOs can be replaced by oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and oils from fatty fish, walnuts and seeds.

Oils rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids are also an alternative. These include canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil and oils from nuts and avocados. Palm oil fractions and palm oil blends, as well as coconut oil, are popular due to their solid state at room temperature.

Efforts done globally?

In May 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for the total elimination of artificial trans fats in diets by 2023.

Countries such as the US and Canada have banned PHOs since 2018. Thailand banned PHOs in January in 2019. Manufacturers in these countries have switched from artificial trans fats to healthier oils such as unsaturated oils.

Other countries such as Argentina, China and Saudi Arabia have made it mandatory for manufacturers to disclose the level of trans fat on the nutritional information panel on packaged foods.

Various limits have also been placed on the amount of artificial trans fat in different types of foods. For instance, Denmark and Norway cap the amount of artificial trans fats in all fats, oil and packaged foods at 2% of total fat content. Denmark, the first country to impose such restrictions in 2004, the rate of mortality from heart disease has been falling.

Although there’s no regulation in Japan against their use of trans fats in products, a number of Japanese food manufacturers are making efforts to reduce its use. For example, major Japanese food firms such as Meiji, Megmilk Snow Brand and J-Oil Mills are removing PHOs from their products, in response to the directives and recommendations from FDA and WHO. These companies say on their product packages that they are making efforts to reduce the use of trans fats and explain on their websites the purpose of such efforts.

In Japan, the estimated trans fatty acid intake is 0.6% of total energy intake – which is comparatively much lower compared to the US and Europe. Japanese consumers are increasingly aware that reduced use of trans fats can lead to a healthier lifestyle.

The ban of PHOs in Singapore

The Ministry of Health (MOH) now requires all food companies to phase out artificial trans fats (or PHOs) and will ban PHOs as an ingredient in all foods sold in Singapore, whether manufactured locally or imported, from June 2021. This means any products that contain PHOs can no longer be imported from overseas into Singapore.

This comes as part of the Singapore Government’s ongoing efforts to encourage healthier eating, and to improve the quality of diets for Singaporeans. This does not come as a shock as most local manufacturers and retailers have already taken steps to reformulate their products following a limit on artificial trans fats back in 2013.

Previous regulations stipulated that fats and oils supplied to manufacturers and food and beverage outlets in Singapore, as well as those sold on the retail market, must not have trans fat content exceeding 2% per product. It also became mandatory to label trans fat levels on the packaging of all fats and oils, and indicate in the ingredients list if PHOs were used.

The upcoming ban in 2021 will include all food products, including packaged foods, whether manufactured here or imported.

When does the ban take effect?

The ban will take effect from June 1, 2021. This comes after a two-year long buffering time to get companies prepared. Under the new regulations, a person must not
  • import any edible fats or oils that contain any partially hydrogenated oil for use as an ingredient of any other edible fats or oils or any prepacked food; or
  • use any edible fats or oils that contain any partially hydrogenated oil as an Ingredient. In these Regulations, “partially hydrogenated oil” means any edible fat or oil that has undergone the process of hydrogenation but is not fully saturated as a result of that process.”
All food manufacturers, retailers and importers will continue to be mandated to list the ingredients on the packaging of their products sold in Singapore.

The MOH has announced that the industry will be provided with further guidelines to facilitate this smooth transition. Enterprise Singapore will also support food companies with an enterprise development grant for product reformulation.

Meanwhile, six companies (Gardenia Foods, Nestle Singapore, NTUC FairPrice, Prime Supermarket, Sheng Siong Group and Sunshine Bakeries) have already pledged their commitment to ensure that their products are PHO-free by June 2020.

These companies account for 50% of market share across the four high-risk food categories of snacks, baked goods, prepared meals and fat spreads.

Enforcements

Currently, food products containing PHOs are regulated under regulation 78 of the Sale of Food (Food Regulations) Act. These regulations will be amended to legislate a complete ban on PHOs as opposed to a partial ban before this amendment.

Market surveillance will be conducted regularly to ensure the industry’s compliance to the ban. Those who do not comply with the ban will have to withdraw the products from Singapore, and will not be allowed to sell the product until it has been reformulated.

On the consumer front, the Health Promotion Board (HBP) will also educate and raise awareness amongst consumers on the dangers of trans fat. Since Japan has no regulations regarding PHOs limitations, it is important that Japanese manufacturers understand these new enforcements when looking to expand and import their products into Singapore. It is crucial that products are made/ re-made to be free from PHOs and companies should be prepared to show that information before discussing with importers, buyers and distributors.

Please contact GPC if you have any questions regarding your market entry into Southeast Asia or vice versa, expand into Japan.
Our consultants will assist in advising the best solutions for your business.