Widespread mislabelling uncovered in butter and margarine: Hong Kong Consumer Council

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Traces of trans-fatty acid were found in spreads labelled with “zero” trans-fatty acid according to the Consumer Council of Hong Kong. ©GettyImages
Traces of trans-fatty acid were found in spreads labelled with “zero” trans-fatty acid according to the Consumer Council of Hong Kong. ©GettyImages
From traces of trans-fatty acids found in spreads labelled as containing "zero" trans-fatty acids to margarine claiming to contain vitamins not evident on the nutrition label...the consumer council of Hong Kong has revealed rampant labelling inaccuracy on spreads sold in the local market.

For instance, an Organic Spreadable Butter from Lurpak claimed to contain 36mcg of sodium per 100g of blended butter, but tests show that the actual amount was 11 times higher than stated, at 410mcg per 100g.

Four samples labelled with “zero”​ trans-fatty acid was found to contain levels of trans-fatty acid that exceeded the tolerance limit of not more than 0.3mg/100g. 

They include Earth Balance's Organic Whipped Buttery Spread, Essential Waitrose’s Olive Spread – Reduced Fat Spread, Sunny Meadow’s Spread with Canola Oil and Daisy Australian’s Spreadable Salted Butter, according to information provided by the council. 

Another nine samples from renowned brands such as President, Meadowlea and Tesco were detected with trans-fatty acid levels that are 20% higher than the labelled content.

The consumer watchdog did a sampling test on 30 models of pre-packaged butter and margarine sold in the market in October last year.

The 30 models included nine butters, 16 margarines and fat spreads, four butter and vegetable oils blended fat spreads, and one shortening. 

Gilly Wong, chief executive of the council, said the test results had been submitted to the FEHD’s Centre for Food Safety and the Customs and Exercise Department, to determine if manufacturers had violated the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.

The council urged authorities to pay attention to inaccurate food labelling, and to devise legislation requiring food labels to disclose in detail, including the types of oil, content and composition, and processing methods to enable consumers to have a firm grasp of information in suitable food purchases.

Wong noted that a number of manufacturers including Daisy, Lurpak and President had revised their labels after being notified of their mistakes.

M&S and Tesco have also said that they will be revising the label, added the council.

The Centre for Food Safety technical guidance notes has laid down strict nutrition labelling requirements on pre-packaged food. False or misleading product labelling may constitute a contravention of the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations. 

On the other hand, using a label on food that does not meet the official standards could lead to fine or prison. Any false description of food substance could lead to a maximum fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,400) and six months in jail.

Margarine healthier?

The test also revealed that some margarines contain higher level of saturated fatty acid than butter.

As compared to butter, margarine is supposedly healthier due to lower total fat contents.

However, one margarine sample from President’s Ambassador Salted Culinary Fat Blend was found to contain 77.2g/100g of saturated fatty acids, which is higher than the average of butter at 50.5 to 56.2g/100g.

Total fat content in margarine also varied considerably across products. The majority were found to contain 60 to 70g, one had 81.4g, which is similar to the average of the butter samples.

Only three samples had substantially lower total fat content, containing less than 40g of total fat for every 100g.

Total fat content includes the amount of saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids, both of which would cause bad cholesterol in the body to rise, affecting the heart and increasing the risks of cardiovascular disease.

Cancer-causing ingredients in spreads

Glycidol, a genotoxic carcinogen that can cause cancer was detected in 18 margarine samples.

However, the council’s chief executive Wong said glycidol is “inevitably produced”​ when vegetable oil is heated during the refining process, and could also be found in a host of processed foods, including biscuits and pancakes.

In an interview with South China Morning Post​, both she and Professor Wong Kam-fai, who chairs the council’s Trade Practices and Consumer Complaints Review Committee, said it was unrealistic to tell people not to eat anything that might contain the substance.

The European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) is set to publish its standards for glycidol intake this year. Last year it recommended that the intake of the by-product 3-MCPD should be no more than 120mcg per day for adults.

3-MCPD is produced during high-heat cooking, and present in refined edible oils, noodles, bread, cookies, and even infant formula.

But a person would still have to eat 24 teaspoons of the fat blend in a day to exceed the ESFA’s guidelines, the council said.

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