Regulating salt, sugar and fats in processed food must come with consumer awareness
EARLY this month, the Health Ministry succeeded in getting major food and drink manufacturers to commit to reducing the salt, sugar and fat content in their products, as well as provide nutritional content labels on the food and drink packaging. Although only a guideline at the moment, this practice is likely to become a standard by which manufacturers must comply; so, to get a voluntary commitment towards healthier food and drinks now is quite an achievement. Last year, the ministry got manufacturers to reduce the salt content in 11 food products; and this year, at least another five products (ketchup, sauces, biscuits, instant soup and instant noodles) will have less salt in them.
These measures are long due. Malaysia is the eighth highest sugar consumer in the world. According to the Consumers Association of Penang, Malaysians consume 26 teaspoons of sugar per day -- 16 teaspoons above the maximum 10 recommended by the World Health Organisation. In addition, the average Malaysian consumes 8.5g of salt per day -- more than the required 5g to 6g a day. Excessive consumption of sugar and salt contributes to many non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart problems, osteoporosis, kidney problems, high blood pressure and stroke. Not surprisingly, in Malaysia, the incidence of NCDs is high, and on the rise. One in five adults has diabetes; the figure having increased nearly two-fold from 1.5 million in 2006 to 2.6 million last year. And, the number of people with high blood cholesterol has increased from 20.7 per cent in 2006 to 35.1 per cent last year. Getting manufacturers to reduce the salt, sugar and fat content is an important step, because it will contribute towards creating taste buds that do not require so much salt, sugar or fat to enjoy food. Accurate, detailed and prominent food labels will also help consumers to decide on what, and how much, of something they can consume. But all these are only of any good if the consumer plays an active and conscious part in taking care of his own health. The consumer must care about what he puts into his mouth, and how that will affect his health. Food labels listing nutritional content are of no use if no one reads them. Eating practices also must change. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, we no longer need to eat as much, because our physical labour has lessened; so, our consumption of food must also be reduced to suit our actual energy needs. Malaysians must manually rewire their brains (and palettes) if they want to be, and stay, healthy.