Why It Matters

A step towards healthier diets

Patrons of hawker centres or coffee shops may have noticed in recent months a small red tag on signboards marking out low-calorie dishes such as mee soto or pork porridge.

This is part of the Health Promotion Board's (HPB) efforts to help people identify healthier hawker food.

At present, more than 2,700 food and beverage stalls across Singapore serve at least one lower-calorie dish. The plan is to nearly double this over the next two years, so that 40 per cent of the 13,000 hawker stalls in Singapore will offer customers a healthier option.

It is yet another tool in the board's kit to deal with rising obesity rates, which have risen rapidly from 7 per cent of the population in 2004 to 11 per cent today.

The immediate reaction from some quarters has been scepticism. After all, people ask, how healthy can hawker food actually get?

This is a fair point. Hawker food will never be as healthy as a home-cooked meal, and it is unlikely to confer the same nutritional benefits as a salad bowl.

But compared with many other alternatives, hawker food is both cheap and easily available.

If it is to be a mainstay of the everyday diet, then providing people with the information they need to make healthier choices is important.

Obviously, some items, like char kuay teow, are not going to be considered healthy - or even healthier - by any stretch of the imagination.

But someone on the fence about whether to buy duck rice or duck noodle soup may opt for the latter, after learning that it is the lower-calorie option.

These small decisions made consistently over years will ideally bear fruit in the form of a longer, healthier life. Labelling healthier foods is just one small part of changing behaviour by getting people to stop and think about what they are eating.

It will not be enough. Much more needs to be done, including getting people to put health first when making their daily food choices.

However, it is a start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'A step towards healthier diets'. Print Edition | Subscribe