In the land where dishes like nasi lemak and char kway teow reign supreme, it’s easy to see how comfort food staples in Singapore wildly differ from Western counterparts like burgers and pizza. What these types of food have in common, however, is that they are high in fat.
“Since our national diets are so different compared to Western diets, the fats we consume are also different,” said Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, Senior Advisor at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and Director at the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC).
For Henry and his team, dietary fat intake among local populations is of particular interest as overindulging in fatty food increases the risk of developing serious cardiovascular conditions. Once metabolized by the body, this dietary fat turns into fatty acids (FA), which circulate in the bloodstream and can be used clinically as diagnostic markers. After all, individuals with specifically higher FA levels typically have an elevated risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
But when are FA levels considered too high? To answer this question, nutritionists and physicians often turn to standardized ranges. However, these reference ranges for healthy and high-risk FA levels were historically established through participants hailing from Western countries. Due to distinct differences in population genetics and dietary habits between these regions, existing reference data does not necessarily apply to the Asian context, explained Henry.
To bridge this gap, Henry and colleagues sought to establish a FA reference range specific to Southeast Asians. After collecting blood samples from over 470 healthy middle-aged Singaporeans, the team built an extensive database measuring 67 FAs from these samples.
By ranking FA levels among the Singaporean cohort, the team found that palmitic acid and oleic acid—both found in palm and coconut oils—were among the most abundant. This was unsurprising, given Singapore’s geographic location between two of the world’s largest palm oil producers, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Interestingly, the study also revealed that mean FA concentrations in the local participants mirrored values previously measured in obese individuals from Western nations. According to Henry, this is likely due to a significant shift in the Singaporean diet, with more residents opting to choose convenient fast food options over healthy, balanced meals.
As the first study assessing individual FA concentrations within a local context, these results provide a valuable tool for healthcare professionals in Singapore. To put their findings to good use, the team is collaborating with food industry partners to formulate specialized blended oils that could improve FA profiles in Southeast Asian populations.
“Ultimately, understanding the FA profile in Asian subjects will enable [doctors] to provide appropriate dietary advice, especially for those with abnormal blood lipid profiles that may increase their risk of cardiovascular diseases,” concluded Henry.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).