It is a commendable goal, as set by the Health Promotion Board, to get Singaporeans to cut their sugar intake by nearly a quarter by 2020, and to include more unrefined carbohydrates, such as whole grains, in their diet. The drawing up of guidelines for food manufacturers, to reduce the amount of sugar used in sauces, desserts and sweet drinks, should help to nudge Singapore towards a healthier diet. These initiatives are incremental moves in the war on diabetes and come after several drink companies pledged to reduce the sugar in their beverages to 12 per cent by 2020. Just as Singaporeans are getting used to drinks that are less sweet, they can also adjust themselves to desserts and sauces that are better for their overall health.
As all taste is acquired, in a sense, what has been taken onboard can be discarded progressively. However, this will occur only if people are aware of the health risks created by their habits and are prepared to let the mind rule increasingly over old cravings. The problem is that, unlike smoking, drinking and drugs - whose risks are obvious, acknowledged and even legislated against in the case of drugs - salt and sugar are often viewed as merely necessary ingredients of tasty food. They are preserved by culinary custom and family culture and passed down to the next generation. Eaters take their food personally, attesting to a natural fondness for "home-cooked" treats that supersedes the spoilsport warnings of dieticians. Health science is not a tasty dish.
It is the force of habit that all will have to fight if national health efforts are to get anywhere. The key weapon is awareness. How many people know that the soda they drink contains 12 per cent sugar, or that mango sago has 15 per cent sugar, or that mee siam paste has 30 per cent sugar? And if people are told, what would they make of these percentages? Singaporeans will ascribe to numbers their true potency only if they accept first that the numbers all add up, bit by bit, and can contribute to serious health risks. Like salt, sugar must never be viewed as being just a part of ordinary diet but as an ingredient whose correct proportion is of vital importance.
Of course, the war on diabetes cannot be fought on the food front alone. The avoidance of smoking and excessive alcohol intake needs to be accompanied by regular exercise to keep away this dreaded disease. Here, again, the force of habit is an enemy that needs to be kept at bay. Beguiling oneself into thinking that one is statistically safe from diabetes is as wrong as falling prey to the fatalist belief that it is genetically ordained. A rationalist approach to health would demand that Singaporeans make a set of lifestyle choices when these can still tip chances in their favour. This means that they must act before being forced to do so, for example, when illness strikes.