Is Reformulation Necessary for a Healthier Singapore?

On 30th August 2018, Food Industry Asia (FIA) hosted a Lunch Series session titled ‘Reformulating for a Healthier Lifestyle’. The session tackled the rising epidemic of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, and how this has motivated manufacturers in the food industry to improve the nutritional values of their food products through reformulation and product innovation.

Mr Steven Bartholomeusz, FIA’s Policy Director, opened the session by emphasising FIA’s and its members’ commitment to product innovation and reformulation by referencing the recent Food for the Future Summit that FIA spearheaded. The summit provided a platform to discuss how best to tackle the challenges that the food industry collectively faces, one of which being product reformulation. FIA also conducted a study alongside IGD, to better understand the product reformulation landscape in Singapore. 

Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore and the first speaker at the lunch session, shared that “we did not evolve as human beings to survive in an environment with such abundant access to food, so that is part of the reason why we’re seeing a lot of problems with chronic diseases”. 

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to chronic diseases, Professor Teo went on to explain that policy makers play a very important role in managing the food environment that the population is exposed to. There are multi-pronged approaches that have been implemented, some of these include mandatory labelling, the restriction of advertisements of high sugar sweetened beverages and banning the sale of high sugar beverages in schools. 

Prof Teo Yik Ying of National University of Singapore on the panel
discussing the challenges and opportunities in driving healthy eating
behaviours in Singapore. 

There has been undeniable success through the multi-pronged approaches. Now, one in three drinks contain less sugar (or come in an unsweetened variation) and there has been a decrease in sugar levels in sweet drinks from 9.5% to 6.5%. 

Shirley Zhu, Programme Director of IGD, shared that 80% of manufacturers are on the journey towards reformulation, with 76% of them doing it with the intention of improving the public health. However, this is easier said than done. Some of the key challenges experienced by manufacturers are consumer adaptability, maintaining taste, budgeting limits as well as the lack of technical knowledge. “You might need to change the formula of the product, just to change a tiny ingredient by a tiny amount,” she shared. 

Kalpana Bhaskaran, Domain Lead, Applied Nutrition and Glycemic Index Research, at Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Applied Science (ASc), gave a personal anecdote about a manufacturer who wanted to remove sugar from their fruit preserve jam. “Natural jam only has four ingredients, but the (sugar-free) version we formulated had sixteen! So even though we had removed sugar, the number of calories remained the same.” Despite the hurdles encountered, Ms Zhu reassured that the food industry is still working very hard and they are constantly putting lots of effort into the public health agenda. 

According to the IGD report that was released in collaboration with FIA, 92% of companies have said that they would be encouraged to take on more research and development if the government offered fiscal and financial incentives. “The role of the government is very important in this entire space. They are a trusted source and a voice of reason, and they can guide the industry and the population,” Professor Teo shared.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) currently has a Healthier Ingredients Scheme in place, which aims to motivate food and beverage operators to provide healthier options on their menu. The scheme has gained a lot of traction, especially among smaller companies. 

“We have the small manufacturers coming to us and asking what they can do to make their food healthier. They see the consumer demand for their products, and they want to provide healthier products of good quality,” explained Terence Ng, Deputy Director, Policy, Research and Surveillance Division for the HPB.

Ralph Graichen, Director, Food and Nutrition, Biomedical Research Council, A*STAR Singapore and moderator for the panel discussion, brought up the importance of the consumer’s feelings when it comes to reformulation, citing the outcry that happens when consumers realise their favourite products have changed. “We have to be careful of how we communicate reformulation to the consumer. They’re very emotionally linked to foods and to the brands. If you change too much, they drop brands,” he added.

“The very fact that food is emotional, and in Singapore, quite culturally ingrained, makes it a good starting point. Food is a part of ourselves that is hard to separate, but we need to make people realise and understand that reformulation can be a very simple change,” chimed Mr Ng. 

Ultimately, the demand for healthier options from consumers has increased, and companies that do not reformulate are at the risk of being left behind. If policymakers and members of the food industry continue working closely together to ensure that food and beverage outlets have the resources and the support that they need to innovate and reformulate, improvements will be seen across the Singaporean diet, and we will hopefully see a decrease in the number of chronic diseases. 

L-R: Dr Ralph Graichen, A*Star (moderator); Shirley Zhu, IGD; Kalpana Bhaskaran, Temasek Polytechnic;
Terence Ng, Health Promotion Board; Prof Teo Yik Ying, National University of Singapore at the FIA Lunch
Series on Reformulating for a Healthier Lifestyle on 30 August 2018 organised by Food Industry Asia (FIA).