The Big Read: As health consciousness rises, can a nation of foodies live with less sugar, salt and all things nice?

HPB also highlighted its Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme, which offers grants to encourage food manufacturers to develop healthier ingredient products.

“By March 2022, 95 suppliers across nine ingredient categories were on board the scheme, offering over 300 healthier ingredient products,” it said.

Nevertheless, TODAY’s checks at major retail stores found that there is still a jarring price disparity between healthier ingredients and regular ones.

For example, the cheapest five-liter bottle of vegetable cooking oil was sold at a supermarket for S$12.95. The cheapest bottle with a HCS label was priced 30 per cent higher at S$17.

A 5kg bag of house brand white rice cost S$6.20, while the cheapest bag of mixed brown and white rice half its weight was priced at S$7.20 — or 2.3 times as much when compared per gram.

Regular salt costs around S$0.40 for a 500g pack, or S$1.40 for a 3kg bag. The cheapest sodium salt costs slightly under S$4 for 215g.

Despite the higher prices, a spokesperson from Fairprice told TODAY that there has been an increase in sales for healthier choice products by more than 10 per cent from 2019 to 2022.

She added that the company has increased the number of healthier choice products in stores by about 10 per cent over the past year.

The experts interviewed acknowledged that socioeconomic status does influence diet choices, and disparities in diet are especially compounded by soaring food prices.

“While the total spending for food has increased across all households, the proportion of food cost to household income is grossly disproportionate for affluent versus underprivileged households,” said Dr Kalpana, adding that such a trend is common across the globe.

Dr Chong from NUS said that lower-income families sometimes do their marketing periodically to buy in bulk and cut down costs, and may forgo healthy food items such as fruits and vegetables if supplies run out in between.

Both she and NYP’s Ms Loong also said due to the higher prices, the less-affluent families may be able to access fewer food options, compared with high-income earners.

Ms Loong said that lower-income groups tend to gravitate towards cheaper, processed and less healthy foods.

She said: “Fresh food insufficiency is also more prevalent among this group, due to the cost. Budget for food is often the least prioritised, compared to other (necessities)”.

Nevertheless, the experts noted that there are government-led and ground-up initiatives in place to make healthier food more accessible to the low income. These include HPB’s programs and community pantries that offer free basic food items to the needy.

At the individual level, Dr Kalpana said one can also make low-cost tweaks such as cutting down unhealthy food and replacing sugary beverages with plain water in order to improve their diet.

“My view is more than socioeconomic status, what needs to be addressed is determining the best methods in changing nutritional behavior, including helping people make informed diet choices,” she said.

HEALTHY DIET IMPORTANT, BUT ISN’T EVERYTHING IN PREVENTIVE HEALTHCARE

Singapore’s aging population is one of the factors driving the Government’s “long-term and profound reform effort” of adopting preventive care, Health Minister Ong told Parliament on Tuesday.

Preventive healthcare consists of measures — including adoption of a healthy diet — taken to prevent diseases and the onset of diseases.

“Our society is aging rapidly, to reduce the disease burden and preserve the quality of life of our people in the coming years, we have to become healthier,” he said.

About one in four Singaporeans will be aged over 65 by 2030, up from one in six today.

Mr Ong added that the rise in healthcare spending cannot be reversed due to an aging population.

“But what we can hope for is to slow down the rate of increase of healthcare spending,” he said.

Of the many components in preventive healthcare, Dr Kalpana said that having a healthy diet is of “paramount importance”, as minor changes can help to prevent chronic diseases.

“For example, eating fewer calories will lead to weight loss and lowering certain fats and cholesterol and adding whole grains to a diet can help prevent atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries), which can lead to heart disease or stroke. Reducing sodium levels in your diet will also reduce the risk of hypertension,” she said.

HPB, too, said that healthy eating is one of the key focuses in preventive health efforts to address key lifestyle risk factors, which can lead to poor health and chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

According to Dr Kalpana, other components of preventive healthcare include:

  • Regular screening for chronic diseases
  • Taking the right steps to quit smoking or stop alcohol abuse
  • Leading a healthy lifestyle
  • weight management
  • regular vaccination
  • Communication with one’s healthcare provider to discuss about medicines/supplements that one should take

TIPS ON HEALTHY EATING — ORGANIC FOOD NOT NECESSARILY HEALTHIER

While healthier food options still tend to cost higher, the experts said that eating well and right does not require one to break the bank or devote a lot of effort to it.

Dr Kalpana said: “People have this misconception that in order to eat healthily, they would need to buy organic foods and specialty products that are expensive.”

And despite the widespread perception that organic food is healthy, this is not necessarily the case.

“While organic foods have fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and are free of hormones and antibiotics, they do not have a nutritional advantage compared to non-organic types,” said Dr Kalpana.

Instead, a cost-effective way of eating could include small changes, such as cutting out foods that are high in sodium or avoiding sugary beverages and drinking water instead.

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