Singapore eateries divided on trying healthier oil option

Chicken rice seller Niven Leong, who uses groundnut oil in his dishes, is among those who will consider switching to a healthier option.
Chicken rice seller Niven Leong, who uses groundnut oil in his dishes, is among those who will consider switching to a healthier option.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Businesses welcome HPB subsidy but concerns such as cost and taste persist

Hawkers and restaurants welcomed a move by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to subsidise a healthier palm-canola oil mix in principle but also expressed worries about switching to the unfamiliar blend.

Some 30 hawkers and restaurants The Straits Times spoke to cited concerns such as affordability, frequency of deliveries and even details such as the oil's smoking point.

The Straits Times reported on Monday that HPB would be spending millions a year on subsidies to absorb the price difference between palm oil and a healthier palm and canola oil mix, which costs 20 per cent to 30 per cent more. The canola mix is lower in saturated fat - something that raises the risk of heart disease and which seven in 10 Singaporeans consume too much of.

HPB aims to get 20 per cent of food outlets to make the switch by 2020.

But for these eateries, taste is key. "I've already tried other types of oil and my food does not taste as good," said Mr Ng Nang Lik, 52. The hawker uses coconut oil, which he says makes the fried doughsticks he sells more fragrant.

Mr T. C. Ho, assistant director for sales and marketing at Peach Garden, said: "We need to do tests and see if the new oil would affect the flavour of our stir-fried and deep fried dishes."

Price is another factor. HPB said it plans to absorb the price difference between palm oil and the new canola mix. But details on the exact pricing are still in the works.

"For us, every single penny counts," said Ms Hawa Kader, 37, who sells Indian Muslim food. "I will consider switching only if the new oil is cheaper," she added. Ms Kader currently uses a vegetable oil which costs about $28 for 17 litres.

Almost 500 hawkers and restaurants are already using a healthier palm-soya oil mix subsidised by HPB, said wholesaler Jia Jia Wang, which supplies this type of oil.

Hawker Mohammad Ismail, 31, however, said he will not be switching to a new oil any time soon.

"I won't change to the new blend because the oil that I'm using now already has a 'chop'," he said, referring to HPB's healthier choice symbol.

HPB said in addition to the canola mix, it will also encourage the use of soya, sunflower and rice bran oils, which have lower levels of saturated fat.

Several hawkers and chefs also raised concerns about the new oil's smoking point and durability.

"We don't want burnt oil to affect the taste of our food," said Mr Sufian Zain, 36, head chef at Restaurant Ember, which serves European cuisine.

The new suppliers must also be able to deliver on demand. "My supplier can deliver oil to me whenever I need it. I'm not sure if the new supplier will do that," said vegetarian food hawker, Mr Tan Sew Sung, 73.

Despite reservations, hawkers and restaurants said they are willing to give the healthier oil a try.

HPB chief executive Zee Yoong Kang has said tests have shown that people cannot taste the difference when palm oil is replaced with the healthier mix.

But hawkers and restaurant chefs said the best way to convince them is by giving them free samples. "I'll have to try the new oil before I introduce it to my customers. Taste is everything," said Ms Ong Poh Kee, 43, a hawker who sells Nonya food.

Chicken rice seller Niven Leong, 54, said he will consider switching from groundnut oil to the new mix. "It's a healthier option after all," he added.