Food makers acquire taste for healthier products

Mr Lim Hock Chai, managing director of noodle maker Leong Guan, says demand was slow when the firm started making healthier wholemeal noodles in 2012. But sales have picked up since then.
Mr Lim Hock Chai, managing director of noodle maker Leong Guan, says demand was slow when the firm started making healthier wholemeal noodles in 2012. But sales have picked up since then. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Five years ago, hawkers doubted that wholegrain noodles would sell, and individual customers barely knew they existed.

But Mr Lim Hock Chai, who is managing director of noodle producer Leong Guan Food Manufacturer, decided to go for it anyway.

"At that time, nobody knew about these kinds of noodles, but we thought that in the future, there might be a market for it," he said.

Even then, sales were sluggish at first. In 2013, Mr Lim said, healthier noodles - made with brown rice or wholemeal flour - made up less than 1 per cent of total sales.

But last year, this figure stood at a solid 5 per cent - and could climb higher in the coming years as government plans to support manufacturers of healthy food are rolled out.

Less than a month has passed since applications opened for the new Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme, but food companies are already biting.

About 30 firms have expressed interest in the scheme, which subsidises the creation of healthy staple foods, said Health Promotion Board (HPB) chief executive Zee Yoong Kang yesterday on the sidelines of the Food Vision Asia conference.

This conference, organised for the first time last year, brings together major players in the food and nutrition industry.

The HPB scheme, which was first announced in March, will provide $20 million in funding over three years for food manufacturers to develop products with healthier ingredients, such as whole grains and healthier oils.

It is just one component of the Government's efforts to drive the creation of healthier products in the food industry, said Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat, who spoke at the conference.

Other measures include speedier approval processes and help with getting such products out to regional markets.

"With an ageing population, we see opportunities for us to come up with some of these food products that can meet the needs of our senior consumers," Mr Chee said.

"But... when companies come up with such solutions to solve our problems in Singapore, after that, they can take some of these and go overseas."

Mr Lim said Leong Guan's healthier noodles are more expensive because taste is paramount.

At wholesale prices, 1kg costs about $1.50, compared with $1.20 for traditional noodles.

"This is mainly due to the ingredients... A special flour and type of salt must be used in order not to compromise on the taste," said Mr Lim.

"We had to make it such that customers couldn't tell the difference."

Mr Zee noted that companies which have never ventured into healthier food options are concerned about whether such food will sell. But current trends prove optimistic, he added.

"We see in other types of food, for example, breads - over time, many Singaporeans are now eating a lot more wholegrains," Mr Zee said.

"And over the last year or so, brown rice has really taken off in terms of demand."

Linette Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2017, with the headline 'Food makers acquire taste for healthier products'. Print Edition | Subscribe