Healthier Choice label: Call for more clarity

The Health Promotion Board's (HPB) healthier choice label on a pack of brown grains.  The Healthier Choice scheme, with its trademark red pyramid label, now applies to 3,500 products.
The Health Promotion Board's (HPB) healthier choice label on a pack of brown grains. The Healthier Choice scheme, with its trademark red pyramid label, now applies to 3,500 products. PHOTO: ST FILE

Experts seek more specific labels for such foods, to help consumers make better decisions

Even as the Health Promotion Board (HPB) looks to further tighten a scheme that labels some food products a "healthier choice", experts say more can be done so that people do not mistakenly think all these foods are outright healthy.

The Healthier Choice scheme, with its trademark red pyramid label, now applies to 3,500 products - a tenfold increase from when it was launched in 2001. The label can even be seen on ice creams, soft drinks and frozen french fries.

One in five food products bears the Healthier Choice label.

The experts say it could be helpful to use more specific labels that state how much healthier the product is, or offer consumers additional information in a bite-size format.

Said Associate Professor Lee Yih Hwai, who heads the National University of Singapore Business School's marketing department: "Is the Healthier Choice more healthy than the 'healthy' choice, or simply more healthy than the 'less healthy' alternative?"

Ms Mah Wai Yee, a principal dietitian at Farrer Park Hospital, said: "People can be mistaken about the meaning of the symbol. For example, a lower-sodium Healthier Choice symbol on sauces may make people think the sauces are 'healthy', and that they can use them in large amounts."

She recommends that, in general, those who are health-conscious should use less sauce when cooking, and enhance the flavour with herbs and spices instead.

The issue was highlighted in several letters to The Straits Times Forum, and comes amid rising diabetes and obesity rates here.

One in nine Singaporeans suffers from diabetes, among the highest rates in the world. About 11 per cent of adults here were obese in 2010, up from 7 per cent in 2004.

"While there are people who are discerning enough to understand the meaning of the symbol, there are also people who are not," said copywriter Jonathan Wong, who wrote to the ST Forum last month.

"As a classification, it works only if there's a very clear meaning to it. Now, products which are really healthy get pulled down along with products that are not."

While brown rice and whole-grain bread are on the Healthier Choice list, so are some brands of ice cream and flavoured breakfast cereal.

HPB chief executive Zee Yoong Kang acknowledged that the average person may not easily grasp the distinction between "healthy" and "healthier" choice.

"But there are very few absolutes in food," he said. "There is no intrinsically good food... Everything is about moderation and balance."

In fact, Mr Zee added, the HPB has been tightening the requirements for those who want to use the Healthier Choice label. In 2011, most sweetened drinks could obtain the label as long as they did not contain more than 8 per cent sugar. But as of 2015, they must have no more than 6 per cent. These requirements will become more stringent as Singaporeans' taste buds shift towards healthier options, he said.

 
 

Some Healthier Choice items already carry a qualifying statement, such as "25 per cent lower sugar compared to regular soft drinks".

However, some people may not understand this and simply use the Healthier Choice symbol as a guide, Ms Mah said. "Perhaps increasing awareness and education may be needed for such consumers."

Mr Louis Yap, a dietitian at Parkway East Hospital, said moderation is still the way to go. "Overeating Healthier Choice-labelled foods can still be as unhealthy when compared to foods without the label."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Healthier Choice label: Call for more clarity'. Print Edition | Subscribe