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From whole grains to less sugar, Singaporeans are eating healthier

A push to eat more wholegrains and veggies. A blitz to cut down on oil and sugar intake. And now, the target is trans fats. Insight looks at the effort to get Singaporeans eating healthier and the impact they've had.

Salma Khalik on 16 Jun 2019

The Straits Times


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The surge in demand for wholegrain rice here about three years ago caught the Thai exporters by surprise, resulting in a temporary shortage of the healthier staple.


But there is now a steady supply as the interest in the more nutritious brown or red rice turned out not to be a flash-in-the-pan fad, and instead grew steadily, accounting now for about 8 per cent of all rice eaten here.


Wholegrain rice also received a big boost two years ago when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the dangers of diabetes and the need for people to exercise more and eat healthier meals.


He said at the National Day Rally in 2017: "If you do cook at home, make small changes, like replacing white rice with brown or mixed grain rice... The effect of eating white rice is almost like eating sugar and when you eat white rice, your blood sugar will shoot up."


While it may have surprised people that diabetes figured so prominently in the PM's yearly address to the nation, the attention he gave it pointed to the high rates of this serious metabolic disease - three in 10 people aged 60 years and older have diabetes, he said - and the urgency of eating better and exercising more to reduce the burden of diabetes on the country.


And people were listening.


Over the years, in a country known for its delicious but sinful hawker food, Singaporeans' palates have been changing for the better.


Significantly more people now eat more whole grain and less sugar, thanks in part to intensive efforts over the past decade by the Health Promotion Board (HPB).


Aside from diabetes, unhealthy meals also push up rates of obesity, which, in turn, increases risks of other serious medical conditions such as cardiovascular diseases. Even as Singaporeans are living longer, their years of ill health have stayed at about 10 years.


The Government is trying to bring this down with healthier lifestyles so people here can enjoy their longer lives in good health.


The HPB's chief executive officer, Mr Zee Yoong Kang, said Singapore probably has one of the most comprehensive food strategies in the world, using both regulation and promotional efforts, and working with the public as well as manufacturers.


He said: "There is no point encouraging people to eat more healthily if the options are not readily available. Similarly, manufacturers can offer healthier foods, but won't do so if there is no demand.


"So we had to encourage demand while ensuring supply is readily available."


So, on the one hand, it exhorts people to eat more vegetables and whole grains, less sugar, salt and oil; on the other, it has been urging reformulation of food products to reflect this, using regulation where necessary.


The latest move is the total ban on partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which contain unhealthy trans fat, from June 2021.


This is expected to save lives, as trans fat is 10-15 times worse than saturated fats, which raise total cholesterol, both good and bad.


The trans fat that is created in the partial hydrogenation of oil both raises bad cholesterol and lowers the good.


While the detrimental health effect of PHOs has been known for more than a decade, Mr Zee said that Singapore, being a small country, could not move till bigger markets did so.


PHOs have been used in food manufacturing for years because they make products shelf-stable and give them a melt-in-the-mouth taste. In the 1970s, they were thought to be a healthier alternative to saturated fats. They were also cheaper.


But in 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration issued its final determination that PHOs were not safe for human consumption. By Jan 1, 2020, they must be totally phased out of all products.


Despite Singapore's small market size, the board has managed to persuade local manufacturers to reformulate some of their products to healthier versions.


Firms have come on board because the authorities are willing to help, both financially and with expertise, handing out 67 grants under the Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme to 42 companies.


Changing a product requires investment in research and development. For example, creating palatable wholegrain noodles and vermicelli took several tries, as initial attempts at adding wholegrain ingredients reduced the elasticity, resulting in noodles breaking easily when cooked.


Similarly, getting people to switch to wholegrain bread became easier when manufacturers discovered that milling the whole meal flour more finely made the bread taste as soft as white bread while retaining the health benefits.


There are now more than 150 products made with healthier ingredients including oil, rice, noodles, sauces, drinks and desserts.


As people here become more health conscious and look out for the healthier choice symbol (HCS) signifying healthier versions of the product, manufacturers are clamouring to have that pyramid symbol on their products.


Said Mr Zee: "Today, having the HCS symbol determines whether a product is a success or not.


"Manufacturers work hard to get the symbol and they complain very loudly if there are delays in the approval process."


There are now over 3,500 HCS products across 100 food categories. They account for 25 per cent of the market share.


As six in 10 people here eat out at least four times a week, the HPB has also worked with food outlets, including hawker stalls, to offer healthier meals.


With 2,400 food and beverage operators, hawker centres and coffee shops - which, among them, have more than 9,600 outlets - the HPB is ensuring that eating healthy is an easy choice people can make, whether they eat out or cook at home.


The half a million healthier cooked meals sold every day are a sign that people agree.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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