Singapore has the second-highest number of overweight people (33%) among countries in Southeast Asia and an estimated 1 million people in the island nation will turn diabetic by 2050.
The food industry recognises the important role it plays in nudging healthier behaviours among consumers and continues to deliver better nutrition through the development of healthier products. Efforts include accelerating innovation and reformulation efforts in response to these growing health and nutrition challenges.
In a Lunch Series session that FIA hosted on 30 August titled ‘Reformulating for a Healthier Lifestyle: A Singapore Perspective’, FIA will speak with Professor Teo Yik Ying (Dean, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore), Dr Ralph Graichen (Director, Food & Nutrition, A*Star Singapore), Terence Ng (Deputy Director, Policy, Research and Surveillance Division, Health Promotion Board), Shirley Zhu, (Programme Director, IGD) and Kalpana Bhaskaran (Domain Lead, Applied Nutrition Research and Head of Glycemic Index Research Unit, School of Applied Science Temasek Polytechnic).
Ahead of this Lunch Series session, FIA spoke to the panellists to understand why reformulation is necessary to nudge healthier lifestyles.
Why is this topic on reformulating for a healthier lifestyle important to discuss now?
Ralph Graichen (RG): For the last few years, one of the topics that always made it into the top 10 of food trends was formulation of food: less for more, personalized nutrition, food as the new medicine, safety, and sustainability. Consumers integrate and accept food and nutrition as part of their health and wellness more consciously. Metabolic diseases like diabetes are taking centre stage as long-term health risks to watch out for. The consumer is increasingly aware of the relationship between food and health, also due to an increase in available information and education campaigns by public health promotions and regulators. This is then affecting purchasing choices made at the supermarket.
Terence Ng (TN): In our fight against diabetes, an area that HPB look to address is our diet as it is a key contributing factor to the rapid rise in diabetes. Carbohydrates form the bulk of our meals and a diet high in refined carbohydrate is linked to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, especially among Asians. In Singapore, more than 80 per cent of our carbohydrate intake is from refined carbohydrates in the form of starchy staples and sugars. Sugar contributes to about 20 per cent of refined carbohydrates, of which, 90 per cent comes from sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts and sauces. HPB has made a good start in increasing the variety of wholegrain rice and noodles in the market and we must now do more to reduce the consumption of refined carbohydrates from sugary food and drinks. We see that more people are turning to pre-packed foods for the convenience or are eating out more frequently. With the rise of this social trend, we need the support of the industry to make healthier food options easy and palatable for these people. We are therefore encouraging both the manufacturing and F&B sectors to reformulate and develop healthier lower-sugar alternatives that taste just as good as their regular versions, tapping on emerging food technologies and a growing range of ingredients with health benefits, such as Allulose and Isomaltulose.
Shirly Zhu (SZ): Obesity is already a major problem in Asia today. It’s strongly linked with diabetes and with a range of diseases. If we don’t act now, the implications will become increasingly severe.
Also, consumers are increasingly demanding healthier options. They are looking for healthier food choices in the supermarket aisles and when they eat out. Many of the most successful food and drink companies are those with a strong health focus.
So, product reformulation is a proven way for companies to contribute to public health and meet a consumer need.
Kalpana Bhaskaran (KB): Diet is one of the major modifiable risk factors for NCDs. Improving diets by changing the composition of processed foods by reformulation favours a better food environment and is considered one of many means to help reduce the prevalence of diet-related diseases. This is the need of the hour as chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) now exceed all communicable deaths combined and pose one of the greatest threats to public health and economic growth at local, national and global levels.
How can individuals educate themselves on healthier choices?
RG: This is still not an easy task. Due to the popularity of the topic, there is a vast amount of information in the public domain. Most of it can lead to confusion and even misinformation if not properly channelled and communicated. Public outreach by policy makers and industry will help here. It is important to engage the consumer and manage expectations.
Which categories make sense to reformulate? What effect does pricing of ingredients have on the final product cost? Which categories are more impactful? What are the barriers in replacing some of the functionality of ingredients? How to manage consumer acceptance of reformulated food products without significantly impacting acceptability. Changing or reducing ingredients while maintaining taste, texture, or functionality can be a major endeavour. Another aspect often missed in the discussion is the effect on safety and shelf life, something the consumer seldom wants to compromise on.
TN: We are working with our F&B partners to promote their healthier offerings through multiple channels, for example, leveraging our all-year round Eat, Drink, Shop Healthy Campaign to nudge and reward consumers for purchasing healthier products. HPB’s ongoing public education also emphasises the need to eat all foods in moderation. Reduced-sugar products still contain sugars, and we should refrain from having them in large portions or we may end up consuming more sugar than we realise. Through these public education efforts, consumers will become more aware of and receptive to healthier alternatives, which will drive demand and further encourage the food industry to innovate and supply more varieties of healthier options.
SZ: Singaporeans have a particularly high interest in eating healthier. In our recent survey, 98% say they’re trying to improve their diet, whereas only 7% claim they always eat healthily today. Indeed, health is important to people right across Asia.
However, we can’t rely on people making a big effort to improve their nutritional knowledge because that isn’t realistic. We need to make it as easy as possible for people to make healthy choices, which is why reformulation is so important.
Another good example is the government-sponsored Healthier Choice symbol in Singapore. This is an at-a-glance way to spot the healthier options within any category and it’s very popular. Eight-in-ten Singapore shoppers say they look out for it.
KB: In order to adapt their eating habits, individuals need opportunities to prepare and taste new foods. Learning the practical skills of healthy cooking can help people become critically aware of the ingredients used, choose healthier options etc and this helps them to rely less on pre-prepared foods that are likely to be high in fat, sugar, and salt. In addition, reflecting on self-identity and on attitudes related to food choice, can induce healthy eating behaviour.
What do you hope for Singapore’s nutrition landscape to be in the next 5 years?
RG: Long-term, prevention has to take the place of acute treatment. We have to embrace the complexity of health and nutrition. For this research has to step up and has to provide the foundation for consumers and policy makers to accept food as one avenue for health and wellness. A sole food item is most of the time not healthy or unhealthy by itself. We have to look at the diet holistically, including behaviour and the personal needs. We are only now developing the tools and understanding to provide better predictions and guidelines. Investments into long term cohort studies like GUSTO (Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes) in Singapore are helping greatly in building up our understanding further.
Policies aiming to promote food reformulation may have greater impact when combined with promoting changes in consumer behaviour at the same time. And changing behaviour is one of the most difficult undertakings.
TN: We aim to double the proportion of unrefined carbohydrates and cut the intake of added sugars by 25% by 2020 and aim to encourage greater quality over quantity in people’s diet. We have been partnering the industry to spur reformulation to increase the wholegrain content in bread and develop diabetic friendly noodle prototypes in partnership with research institutes. We also introduced the Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme to support the industry in reducing sugar in ‘indulgent’ foods such as desserts and beverages, using better quality oil in food preparation and labelling ‘lite’ choices on menu. Wholegrains are also gaining market share, with wholemeal bread and wholegrain rice displacing their refined counterparts. However, more needs to be done to tackle refined carbohydrates from sugar. We will continue to work with the industry to increase the availability of lower-sugar options in the market, while we continue to educate consumers on the right portion sizing and that all foods can be enjoyed in moderation.
KB: The field of nutrition worldwide has gone through a necessary evolution, starting with a reductionist approach, driven by an ambition to understand the mechanisms responsible for the effects of individual nutrients at the cellular and molecular levels. In Singapore, this approach has appropriately expanded in recent years to become more holistic and has ultimately culminated in a full understanding of the dietary landscape—a web of interactions between nutritional, dietary, social, behavioural and environmental factors—and how it impacts health. I hope, over the next five years’ nutrition landscape will complete the full cycle, with digital and personalised nutrition taking over the current “one size fits all” approach.
Learn more about the reformulation landscape in Singapore in the FIA-IGD’s ‘Healthier Product Reformulation in Singapore’ report.
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Director, Food & Nutrition, Biomedical Research Council,
Dr. Ralph is currently Director, Food and Nutrition, Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore. In his current position with A*STAR, Ralph is working with strategic partners to administer and develop new initiatives and programmes in the research areas of food and nutrition.
Domain Lead, Applied Nutrition Research and Head,
Glycemic Index Research Unit, School of Applied Science,
Dr Kalpana Bhaskaran is currently the Domain Lead for Applied Nutrition and Glycemic Index Research at Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore. She championed the design, planning and implementation of Singapore’s and the region’s first accredited Glycemic Index Research Unit (GIRU).
IGD Services (Singapore)
Shirley Zhu leads IGD’s research programme in the Southeast Asia region. Shirley has extensive research experience in the FMCG industry and has helped many multinational and local clients achieve their strategic objectives.
Policy, Research and Surveillance Division,
Health Promotion Board
Terence is the Deputy Director in the Policy, Research and Surveillance Division in the Health Promotion Board Singapore. He is responsible for the formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of priority public health policy in the board, including food, nutrition and physical activity. He holds a law degree and a Masters in Sociology.