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Changing a Nation’s Palate
Mr Patrick Chan, President, Association of Catering Professionals Singapore (ACAPS) and Council members
Friends, ladies and gentlemen
1. I am happy to join you at ACAPS’s gala dinner, themed “Healthier Dining”. I hope that after this evening, we can all commit to a healthier future for Singapore. 
2. The commitment starts with tonight’s menu. It is not a bland menu, but a delicious, inspiring yet healthy one. In collaboration with the hotel and the Health Promotion Board (HPB), ACAPS has curated dishes that use good ingredients, such as locally grown vegetables from the hotel’s hydroponics farm, and are prepared using less salt or lower-sodium alternatives. 
Eating healthily need not be expensive or difficult
3. The Ministry of Health (MOH) has been making a bigger push to encourage healthier diets. However, while people know the importance of a healthy diet, many find it hard to put it into practice. 
4. Some associate healthy eating with sacrifice – giving up all our favourite hawker food, and just eating fruits and salads and drinking water. Others think healthy eating is expensive, because it means buying organic products and premium ingredients. 
5. Both are misperceptions. For a minority of people, a strict diet may be necessary to manage a chronic illness, like diabetes that has advanced considerably. But for most of us, a strict diet may be lacking in iron, protein or key nutrients and that is bad for us. Conversely, consuming a lot of premium rock salt from some exotic place still leads to excessive sodium intake and high blood pressure. 
6. For most of us, healthy eating means still enjoying what we like, but being mindful about what we are consuming and eating in moderation. In particular, almost all of us need to take less salt, sugar and fat. Every dish contains these, and we are eating too much of it. 
7. The good news is, to reduce the intake, we only need to make small changes. For example, add less soya sauce or salt to our food, or kick the habit of constantly dipping our food in sauces, which is also insulting to the chef. For drinks, go for ‘siu dai’ or ‘kosong’ versions. 
8. Changing these habits does not need to cost more, does not require us to give up our favourite foods, or make our diet bland and uninteresting. Furthermore, it takes only about 30 days to change a habit. What is needed is for us to put aside the reasons and excuses, and take the first step to make a change. We should do this so that we can grow old healthily, and our family members do not have to give up their lives to become our caregivers should we become very sick.
Good progress in tackling excessive sugar intake 
9. To support Singaporeans in adopting healthier eating habits, MOH and HPB have introduced various measures. 
10. Take sugar, for example. More than half of Singaporeans’ daily sugar intake comes from beverages, such as hot beverages from coffee shops, and canned or packet drinks. We are reluctant to follow countries like the United Kingdom to tax sugar. Instead, we introduced Nutri-Grade labels to help consumers identify beverages that are higher in sugar and saturated fat. Those with Nutri-Grade “D” are not allowed to advertise their drinks. 
11. Even before the measures came into effect, the beverage industry had reformulated their products to reduce sugar and saturated fat. We have seen encouraging results from our efforts, with a decrease in the median sugar level of prepacked beverages from 7.1% in 2017 to 4.6% in 2021. The average daily sugar intake of Singaporeans has fallen from 60g in 2018 to 56g in 2022. The ideal intake is less than 50g. 
12. More recently, we launched the “Siu Dai by Default” movement. This means when you order ‘kopi’ or ‘teh’, it comes automatically with less sugar, or ‘Siu Dai’.  
13. I hear that Fong Fu Food Catering, a member of ACAPS, has already fully embraced the spirit of this movement and is only offering healthier choice drinks that are minimally Nutri-Grade “B” in their menu. Thank you Fong Fu Food Catering. I encourage more ACAPS members to do the same. 
Excessive sodium intake remains a concern
14. I think we are getting it right for sugar and need to press on our efforts. The other nutrient we need to tackle is sodium. But dealing with sodium is slightly trickier. 
15. Sodium is found in common salt. I hear many people say, “I don’t eat a lot of salt, we don’t add salt into our dishes at home, instead we use soya sauce, oyster sauce, ikan bilis or ‘hey bee’….” I am sorry, all these ingredients contain salt and sodium, and we need to cut back. 
16. HPB’s market study showed that between 2010 and 2023, the sodium content of local dishes has gone up by an average of about 20%. Looks like our chefs and cooks have become more ‘heavy handed’ over time. 
17. For instance, the same plate of chicken rice that we eat today has more than 1,500mg of sodium – about 60% more than in 2010. The same plate of mee goreng has over 3,800mg of sodium, double that compared to 2010. For reference, our ideal daily intake for sodium is less than 2,000mg a day. 
18. This is cause for concern. Firstly, when we take too much salt, our bodies will try to retain more water. That is why we feel thirsty. We always blame it on MSG, but it is actually caused by more sodium in our bodies. When we retain more water, the volume of blood flowing in our body increases, and our heart will have to work harder to pump blood, resulting in higher blood pressure. Over time, this further strains our blood vessels, kidney, and heart, and increases the risk of stroke, kidney failure, and heart attacks. 
19. Every day, 60 Singaporeans suffer either a heart attack or stroke, mostly due to progression of chronic illnesses like high blood pressure. Some die from it, some recover quickly, others become immobile or need long periods of rehabilitation. Many blame the vaccines they took. But every good doctor will tell you it is the many years of unhealthy lifestyles and diet that clog up our blood vessels and result in the underlying chronic illnesses that lead to heart attacks and strokes. 
20. The curious thing is that when I go table to table at hawker centres and ask residents how they find the food, many of them, especially the women who cook at home, will tell me the dishes are too salty. They use a lot less sauces and salt at home. 
21. Therefore, with Singaporeans eating out more frequently, hawkers, chefs, and caterers play an important role in helping us consume less sodium. As such, a key prong of MOH’s and HPB’s sodium reduction strategy is to work with food operators, suppliers and manufacturers. 
Less salt does not mean less taste
22. The first step is to simply use less salt, sauces and seasoning. 
23. I can imagine the reaction of customers – that the food will become tasteless. Unfortunately, over the years, we have somehow equated saltiness with good taste. This is such a pity, because in Southeast Asia, our food is already naturally flavourful with the great variety of herbs, spices and ingredients available. 
24. There is also so much more to taste than just saltiness. The Chinese categorise the taste of food into five flavours – sourness, sweetness, bitterness, spiciness and saltiness or 酸甜苦辣咸. I am sure the professionals among us tonight have many more ways to describe the taste of food. But we appear to be entering a palate crisis, as saltiness has reduced our sensitivity to all the other tastes. If this continues, we may risk destroying the food culture that we hold dear. 
25. HPB recently launched a “Less Salt, More Taste” movement and I would like to thank ACAPS for being one of the first industry associations to pledge your commitment to the movement. I was most glad to learn of the endorsement from our culinary professionals, who agree that less salt does not mean less taste, and that it is possible to prepare food with less salt without compromising on flavour. 
26. However, it will take time for customers to accept the change in flavour if you modify your recipes to use less salt. We are not expecting everyone to make drastic changes overnight. But over time, tastes and palates do change, just as we have changed to consume a lot more salt from 2010 till now. It will take some time to change back. 
27. I am glad that some ACAPS members are taking the first steps. Springleaf Prata Place has started to use less salt across their savoury pratas and mains like sambal fish and palak paneer. Others are experimenting by offering a few dishes in the buffet line that are prepared with less salt, and actively seeking consumer feedback on these dishes. MOH and HPB will continue to support the industry through our nationwide public education campaigns to drive home the importance of reducing one’s sodium intake. 
Lower-sodium alternatives as a practical first step
28. If reducing salt and sauces is not enough, we will take the next step, which is to replace regular versions of these ingredients with lower-sodium versions. Richfood Group, also an ACAPS member, is using lower-sodium salt and sauces in at least half of their menu items. These alternatives contain about 30% less sodium than regular versions.
29. There are members of the public who are hesitant about using lower-sodium alternatives. There are two main concerns. First, whether lower-sodium alternatives, specifically potassium-enriched salt, is safe for people with certain medical conditions. Second, that they are significantly more expensive than the regular sodium-rich versions. Let me address them today. 
30. Our clinicians and professional bodies have issued formal written advice stating that potassium-enriched salt is safe for the general population. For those with late-stage chronic kidney disease, the advice is to adopt a diet with no or low added salt, whether it is regular salt or potassium-enriched salt.  
31. As for the issue of cost, using lower-sodium alternatives will not drive up your business cost. With the support of HPB’s Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme (HIDS), the wholesale prices of all lower-sodium salt and most lower-sodium sauces are comparable to that of regular versions. 
32. For smaller F&B operators that purchase these ingredients from retail shops, HIDS has also greatly decreased the retail price of lower-sodium salt from about $10 per kg to $4 per kg. While this is still more expensive than regular salt which costs around $1 per kg, the difference in cost per meal can be quite minimal. 
33. Over time, we can also expect costs to come down as demand for lower-sodium alternatives increases. In the meantime, if operators wish to continue buying regular salt, we encourage you to use less when preparing your dishes, which is still the primary course of action. 
34. For those of us who care about health, we would know quite a number of wise sayings. For example:
‘Food is medicine if we eat well, but poison if we do not.’
‘If we eat well, there is no need for medicine. If we don’t eat well, medicine is of little use.’ 
35. Unhealthy diets can lead to serious health problems – hypertension, diabetes, heart disease – that will plague us and our families in the long run. When it comes to healthcare, we always think it is about hospitals, expensive treatments and surgeries. Those are in fact for sick care, and they are painful and expensive. Healthcare is about much more pleasant things, having good relationships, learning, leading a happy life, sleeping well, and eating healthily. 
36. Which means all our restaurant operators, coffee shop operators, chefs and hawkers are now all part of our healthcare system. I urge you to work with us, and together, we can start to change the nation’s palate towards less sweet and less salty foods, regain our ability to taste the diverse ingredients of Southeast Asian food, and achieve better health for our people. 
37. Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the evening.

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