Test Reveals Prevalent Faulty Labeling on Butter & Margarine Nutrient Contents with 50% of Samples Seriously Inaccurate – 85% of Margarine Detected with Genotoxic Carcinogen

16 April 2018
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Test Reveals Prevalent Faulty Labeling on Butter & Margarine  Nutrient Contents with 50% of Samples Seriously Inaccurate –   85% of Margarine Detected with Genotoxic Carcinogen

Butter is used commonly as an oil spread over breads and an ingredient to cook or bake food.  To reduce fat intake, some consumers opt for what is popularly called “vegetable butter” or margarine in the belief it’s healthier.  A Consumer Council test on 30 models of prepackaged butter, margarine and related products has found, in the majority of the samples, their nutrient contents were not correctly described on their labels.  Nearly 50% of the nutrition labels and nutrient claims were seriously flawed and inaccurate, adversely affecting consumers’ basic right to access accurate information.

The Council urges the food manufacturers and agents to deal seriously with the issue, to rectify the faulty labelling, and review the production process in ensuring accuracy in labeling.  The Council also calls on the authorities to pay attention to the problem of serious disparity between the actual and declared contents in food labeling, and to devise legislation requiring food labels to disclose in detail, including the types of oil, content and composition, processing methods, etc. to enable consumers a firm grasp of information in suitable food purchases. 

The test results showed that both butter and margarine were found with different types of fats including trans fatty acids, the consumption of which over the long term could increase risks of cardiovascular diseases.  The trans fat content in margarine is relatively lower but most have come from a process of artificially partial hydrogenation vegetable oils.  As partially hydrogenated oils are widely in use, regions in Europe, the US and Taiwan have legislated to limit their application. The authority is urged to follow suit drawing on the experience of the overseas to introduce regulatory oversight in the application of partially hydrogenated oils in Hong Kong.

Included in the test were 30 models comprising 9 butters, 16 margarines and fat spreads, 4 butter and vegetable oils blended fat spreads, and 1 shortening.  Apart from examining their actual nutrient contents in comparison with the declared contents on the labels, the test was also undertaken to detect the content of such harmful substances as glycidol and 3-MCPD.

Inaccurate nutrition labels referred to CFS for follow up

The Council pointed out that the nutrition labels on half of the samples were far from accurate to be able to assist consumers to base their choice, on the labels, for healthy products.   In fact, many of the samples were in non-compliance of the technical guidance notes on labeling, including a margarine sample whose sodium content (410mg/100g) was actually higher than its labeled content (36mg/100g) by 10 times. 

Furthermore, 9 samples were detected with trans fatty acids 20% higher than the labeled content; 4 samples labeled with “0” trans fatty acid actually exceeded the tolerance limit of not more than 0.3mg/100g.  Individual samples also made claims of several vitamins contents on the packaging but such information was neither available nor specified on the nutrition labels.

The Centre for Food Safety technical guidance notes has laid down strict nutrition labeling requirements on prepackaged food.   False or misleading product labeling may constitute a contravention of the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labeling) Regulations.  Food agents are urged to take immediate actions to correct inaccurate product labeling.

Vast variation in margarine fat contents

Relative to butter, the margarine samples were generally lower in total fat contents which varied considerably - with the exception of 3 samples (lower than 40g/100g), the majority were found to contain 60 to 70g.  One other had 81.4g similar to the average of the butter samples.

Among the total fats were included what was regarded as bad fatty acids saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids both would cause the level of bad cholesterol in the body to rise, affecting the heart and increase the risks of cardiovascular disease.  All the butter samples were found with generally higher levels of saturated fatty acids (50.5 to 56.2g/100g), one margarine sample was found with a content (77.2g/100g) even higher than the average of butter. 

Regulatory oversight to limit content of harmful substances

The test has revealed that 18 margarine samples were detected with the genotoxic carcinogen glycidol (13 to 640 micrograms/kg), and among them 16 samples with the contaminant 3-MCPD (44 to 1,100 micrograms/kg).   Because of the genotoxicity and carcinogenicity of glycidol, consumers are advised to keep the intake of glycidol to as low as reasonably practicable.  In Europe, earlier this year, work has been completed on setting the maximum glycidol limit on food products including vegetable oil and fat, and infant formula. In order to uplift the food safety standards, the Government should follow closely on the development, and in keeping with the international practice, to introduce similar regulatory oversight. 

With regard to 3-MCPD, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the UN Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) their recommendations on the tolerable daily intake were respectively 2 micrograms and 4 micrograms, and that only a sustained daily intake of 24 teaspoons and 48 teaspoons of the test sample with the highest 3-MCPD (1,100 micrograms/kg) will exceed the recommended limits.  Therefore, with normal consumption, the impact on health is minimal.

Notwithstanding, since 3-MCPD can be produced during high-heat cooking, and present in foods such as refined edible oils, noodles, bread, cookies, cakes, potato chips and fries, and even infant formula and follow-up formula. For good health, one note of caution to consumers is to pay heed to their daily diet so as to reduce the intake of 3-MCPD.

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