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Cover Story

Fat of the matter

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Feb 15, 2009 | From the print edition

What does 'healthy oil' really mean? It is difficult to tell.

The Centre for Science and Environment studied branded edible oils to understand what companies mean in their claims. It found the science to prove a cooking medium's healthiness just isn't there.

Consumers are largely unaware that cooking mediums used outside their kitchens, especially to make certain packaged foods, are chock-a-block with the unhealthy trans fats. The lab analysis of various brands of vanaspati, the semi-solid cooking medium sold in India, confirmed the presence of trans fats.

Consumers can be hoodwinked easily because of the confusion in regulating these cooking mediums. The government is going greasy on trans fats regulation.

And the government-approved nutrition labelling allows companies to make claims that do not stand the test of analysis

A DOWN TO EARTH primer to crack this matrix

-- (Credit: Meeta Ahlawat)What does 'healthy oil' really mean? It is difficult to tell.

The Centre for Science and Environment studied branded edible oils to understand what companies mean in their claims. It found the science to prove a cooking medium's healthiness just isn't there.

Consumers are largely unaware that cooking mediums used outside their kitchens, especially to make certain packaged foods, are chock-a-block with the unhealthy trans fats. The lab analysis of various brands of vanaspati, the semi-solid cooking medium sold in India, confirmed the presence of trans fats.

Consumers can be hoodwinked easily because of the confusion in regulating these cooking mediums. The government is going greasy on trans fats regulation.

And the government-approved nutrition labelling allows companies to make claims that do not stand the test of analysis

A DOWN TO EARTH primer to crack this matrix

In India, Dalda was the first brand of vanaspati, a partially hydrogenated form of oil. Its manufacturer, Hindustan Lever, now Hindustan Unilever Ltd, marketed it as vanaspati ghee (ghee from vegetable oil). The name has stuck. Today, in a growing business of branded edible oils, vanaspati still leads. Even with growing health concerns, the country has no regulation to check the content of trans fats in this oil (see box Making of trans fats). The vanaspati market is full of companies--mostly food multinationals--who make healthier options in their countries because of consumer pressure (see box The big guys who make our vanaspati).

In 2007-2008, cse's laboratory analyzed seven leading vanaspati brands. The results showed trans fats levels were five to 12 times higher than the world's only standard for trans fats in oil, set in Denmark, at 2 per cent of the total oil.

Trans fats of the land  
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What the lab study did

Thirty samples of branded oil were bought in April 2007 and a selection was made based on their market position. The total fatty acid profile (saturated and unsaturated) comprising 37 components and nine trans fats were analyzed.

These samples comprised vegetable oils (21 samples)--soybean, sunflower, safflower, groundnut, mustard, coconut, olive, sesame oil, rice bran and palm oil; partially hydrogenated oil (seven samples), desi ghee (one) and butter (one). Each sample was analyzed in duplicate. The refined edible oils, vanaspati, desi ghee and butter samples were tested according to the internationally used methodology of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) for fatty acids analysis (Method 969.33 Fatty acids in Oils and Fats).

The total fat content (g/100g of oil) of 30 oil samples was expressed as sum of saturated fatty acids, unsaturated fatty acids (mono and poly unsaturated) and trans fats.

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