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Test on Cookies and Sweet Pastries: All 58 Models Had High Sugar or High Fat Content, nearly 90% Contained Genotoxic Carcinogens, and 60% Had Nutrition Labelling Discrepancies

  • 2019.01.15

Cookies, egg rolls, almond puffs and sweet pastries are some of the top choices for gifts to celebrate the Chinese New Year, but choosing food products that are tasty and healthy requires more than just random shopping.  A Consumer Council test on 58 models of cookies and sweet pastries has found all to be high in sugar or fat contents, while 46 were both high in sugar and fat contents.  Further, nearly 90% (51 models) were found to have genotoxic carcinogens.  Of the 46 models with nutrition labels, 29 models were found to exceed the stipulated tolerance limit in the variation in nutrient contents. The most serious case was in the sugar content of 1 model; the discrepancy between its claimed value and the test result reached a high of 210%. The Council has referred all test findings to the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) for follow up.

The Council stressed that food safety and health are crucial consumer rights and urged the producers to improve their recipes to minimize contaminants in food products, reduce the use of preservatives and antioxidants, and introduce low sugar, low fat, high fibre ingredients to give consumers more healthy choices.  Furthermore, accurate nutrient labels are essential for consumer to access information; inaccurate labelling could seriously affect one’s health, especially those with chronic diabetes and heart diseases. Food producers were called on to ensure accuracy of labelling information, and make immediate rectification to safeguard consumer health.

The test covered 58 cookies and sweet pastries, including 46 prepackaged models with nutrition labels, and 12 non-prepackaged or prepackaged models that are exempt from nutrition labelling requirements; among them were 8 palmiers, 3 almond puffs, 9 egg rolls, 9 butter cookies, 11 chocolate cookies, and 18 cookies of other flavours.  The tests focused on preservatives, antioxidants, contaminants, nutrient content, and the accuracy of nutrition labels.

Most models were found containing 3 contaminants

The safety tests focused on 3 contaminants: glycidol, acrylamide, and 3-MCPD. As glycidol and acrylamide are both classified as genotoxic carcinogens, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has pointed out that no safety limit can be set for the intake of these substances; the advice for consumer is the less consumption the better. Neither Hong Kong nor the UN Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX) has set a maximum limit in food for these 2 contaminants. 

In the test, glycidol was found in 40 models, ranging from 3.4 to 1,900 ug/kg.  Glycidol is formed when oil is heated to a high temperature during the process of refining, and it takes the form of glycidyl esters in fat.  42 models were found to contain acrylamide from 32 to 340 ug/kg.

In addition, 35 models had 3-MCPD with wide variance from 11 to 780 ug/kg.  In Hong Kong, there is no regulatory oversight on 3-MCPD content in food.  According to the European Food Safety Authority, the recommended daily limit of 3-MCPD is 2 ug per kg of body weight.  Thus, an adult weighing 60 kg should not consume more than 120 ug a day.  In the case of the palmier model found with the highest content of 3-MCPD (780 ug/kg), consuming only 154 ug (equivalent to about 20 pieces according to the model) would exceed the daily recommended limit.

The tests showed that only 7 of the 58 models were completely free of these 3 contaminants.  The models with a higher content of glycidol and 3-MCPD contained mostly shortening or refined vegetable oil, while the models in which no or low levels of contaminants were detected using butter as the fat ingredient. Consumers should take note before purchase.

Besides the content of contaminants in food, the quantity consumed is another major factor, so consumers should maintain a balanced diet to avoid eating too much of cookies and sweet pastries with a high content of contaminants.

46 models were both high in sugar and fat contents

The tests also measured the nutrient content and compared the values on the nutrition labels to determine their accuracy.  According to the definition of the CFS “shopping guide card”, all 58 models were found to be “high in sugar” or “high in fat” – 48 models were “high in sugar” (more than 15g of sugar per 100g of solid food), and 56 models were high in fat (more than 20g of total fat per 100g of solid food).  46 models were found to be high in both sugar and fat.  As for sodium content, none of the model exceeded the level of “high sodium” food. Only 1 palmier model with sodium content of 580 mg/100g was near the “high sodium” definition (more than 600mg per 100g of solid food).  But as this palmier model weighed only 8.3g each, just one piece contains about 45mg of sodium, but consumers should still be careful not to eat too many at a time.

A wide variation was found in the nutrient content of the models.  For example, the difference between the prepackaged model with the lowest sugar content of 11.4 g/100g on the nutrition label and the model with the highest sugar content of 43.3g, with a difference of 2.7 times.  Even among the same types of food models, the variation was considerable.  For prepackaged palmier models, for example, the sugar content of the lowest and the highest models was respectively 12.1g and 24.2g per 100g, nearly 1 time of difference.  These discrepancies clearly show there is room for food producers to reduce the use of sugar.

Discrepancies in nutrient labelling of 29 models exceeded tolerance limit

Out of the 46 prepackaged models with nutrient labels, over 60% (29 models) were found to have discrepancies between their declared values and measured values that exceeded the tolerance limit of the CFS “Technical Guidance Notes on Nutrition Labelling and Nutrition Claims”. On 1 model, the energy value was not on the label, which was in contravention of the law. The sugar content in 9 models, the sodium content in 14 models, the saturated fatty acid content in 7 models, and the trans fatty acid content in 8 models were all found to exceed the declared values by more than 20%, which means they do not comply with the CFS Guidance.

The most serious case was in the sugar content of 1 cookie model; the discrepancy between its declared value of 7.3g/100g of sugar content and the test result of 22.6g/100g reached a high of 210%.  In another cookie model, the declared value of sodium was 75mg/100g, but the test result showed its sodium content to be 170mg, with a discrepancy of 127%.  In the case of 1 cookie model with dried fruits, its sugar, sodium, saturated fatty acids, and trans fatty acids all exceeded the stipulated tolerance level, and the discrepancy between the declared and measured values was 27.9% (sugar), 51.1% (sodium), 43.8% (saturated fatty acids) and 200% (trans fatty acids).

The findings of the safety test to examine if the models contained 8 types of preservatives and anti-oxidants showed that 13 models contained these food additives, but all were within the legal upper limit; but the nutrition labels on 7 models failed to list the ingredients, which is an unsatisfactory practice.

The test findings revealed that the industry has ample room for improvement, particularly in ingredient selection, baking recipe, production process and quality control. Suggestions for consumers when choosing and eating cookies and sweet pastries:

Apart from paying attention to the product descriptions on the package, ingredients and nutrition labels, be sure the product is not expired;

- Store cookies and sweet pastries away from direct sunlight, in a well-ventilated area, and after opening the package, reseal it to avoid humidity setting in;

- Maintain a balanced diet to reduce the risk of consuming a large quantity of contaminants in some food, and avoid excessive nutrient intake of sugar, sodium and saturated fatty acids.

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