Moderation is key, healthier choice or not

Experts warn that people should not take the Healthier Choice label as an indication that a product is intrinsically healthy.
Experts warn that people should not take the Healthier Choice label as an indication that a product is intrinsically healthy. PHOTO: ST FILE

That bottle of soya sauce may be tagged as a "healthier choice", but that is no reason to use it indiscriminately.

"Having the Healthier Choice label only means the product is healthier compared with similar products," said Mr Louis Yap, a dietitian at Parkway East Hospital. He occasionally encounters patients who overuse such products in their cooking.

He added: "If consumers use a large amount of this product to suit their taste buds, it is essentially no different from using a regular product in lesser amounts."

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has been adding to its list of Healthier Choice products since the scheme started in 2001.

Today, the iconic red label is on 3,500 products spanning 70 food and drink categories, including bread, oil and even ice cream.

But experts warn that people should not take the Healthier Choice label as an indication that a product is intrinsically healthy.

What a "low sodium" label actually means, said principal dietitian Mah Wai Yee, is that a product has 25 per cent less sodium compared with similar products on the market. "It should still be used or consumed in moderation," said Ms Mah, who works at Farrer Park Hospital.

The same advice applies to products that are typically seen as health foods.

Nuts - many varieties of which have the Healthier Choice label - contain unsaturated fats that are good for the body.

However, the HPB recommends that they be taken in moderation as they are high in calories.

And a bowl of brown rice contains nearly the same amount of calories as an identical portion of white rice, although brown rice also has more nutrients and a lower glycaemic index. The index is a measure of how quickly a food product causes blood sugar levels to rise. People are generally encouraged not to eat too much high-glycaemic-index food to avoid repeated blood sugar spikes.

HPB chief executive Zee Yoong Kang noted that there are no intrinsically good food products.

Yet, there are very few foods that are "absolutely evil" - explaining why some ice-cream brands have the Healthier Choice label.

"You can occasionally indulge; just don't overdo it - and when you do it, try to go for the lighter version," he said.

Mr Yap said the best advice for health-conscious customers is to scan nutrition labels.

Not all healthier products have the Healthier Choice label, he added. For instance, the FairPrice brand of frozen straight-cut french fries, which contain 33mg of sodium per 100g, has the Healthier Choice label. But the Lamb Weston brand, which has only 30mg of sodium for the same portion of fries, does not. This could be because new companies may not apply for the label, or foreign firms do not see the benefit of doing so, Mr Yap said.

"I always encourage my patients to read the nutrition information panel... and the ingredients list," he added. "This is the best way to ensure that they are choosing a better product that meets their nutritional and lifestyle needs."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Moderation is key, healthier choice or not'. Print Edition | Subscribe