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Singaporean government pushes for healthy hawker food

Country’s Health Promotion Board wants almost half of stalls to offer at least one healthy option, which the trade says is unrealistic

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 5:52pm

By Tan Weizhen

By 2019, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) aims to have 40 per cent of the 13,000 hawker centre and coffee shop food stalls here offer at least one healthy food option — double the current proportion.

It started the journey to that goal in December, when it extended the Healthier Dining Programme to hawker centres and coffee shops. More than 2,700 stalls across 60 hawker centres and 450 coffee shops have since come on board.

These include Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Tampines Hub Hawker Centre. The programme, launched in 2014, started with restaurants, cafes, food courts, food kiosks and caterers, with more than 1,600 participating outlets to date.

While touring the Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre yesterday, which is now on the programme, Senior Minister of State (Health) Chee Hong Tat told reporters: “The main objective is to ensure that ... for consumers who wish to eat healthily, they have healthier options.”

But Mr Hong Poh Hin, chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, which represents more than 400 coffee shops, thinks the 40 per cent target is unrealistic.

“It’s not possible. Those stalls with good business, like the zi char stalls, use a lot of unhealthy ingredients, so the food tastes better. Healthier food (is) good for health, but the flavour could be affected,” he told TODAY.

One compromise, he suggested, could be to target certain stalls within a coffee shop, for instance, the economy rice or vegetarian stall, to offer healthier food options.

HPB chief executive officer Zee Yoong Kang noted the challenge of convincing food stalls to offer healthier options, as well as the counter strategies the HPB has decided to take. “It was heavy going for a variety of reasons. First, it was a very high risk for many hawkers to change the recipes of dishes they have developed over many decades,” he said.

“Even if the hawkers are willing to change, are the customers willing to accept the shift?”

The HPB would also not make rapid progress by targeting individual hawker stalls, he noted.

“After the initial lessons, we decided that, okay, let’s evolve this ... and start off working with the large chains so we can scale up fast. By working with one set of partners, we can reach many, many touch points, more restaurants, more food courts,” he said.

The second strategy is to work with the companies providing the ingredients, so that the food quality can be controlled, said Mr Zee.

The HPB is now working with food manufacturers to develop healthier staple ingredients, such as wholegrain rice, wholegrain noodles and healthier cooking oil.

It will continue to engage industry partners in seeking their views to expand their range of healthier food products, it said.

Consumers can identify stalls with healthier food options through the “lower-calorie options” labels at stalls. These 65 types of dishes are 500 calories and below, compared with the average 700 to 800 calories.

Mr Abdul Razak, who runs Malay food stall Wak Din at Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre, said he does not use oil for his healthier food options, such as mee soto, soto ayam and meehoon soto.

“So far, my customers have been selecting the healthier food options, but not really because these are healthier, but rather, they want variety,” he observed.

Hawker patrons said they might change their habits if the healthier options are labelled more clearly. One of them, retiree John Cheong, 70, said he does not usually notice such food labels.

“Normally, I just order what I prefer to eat. But now that there are such healthier food options, I’ll ... go for it, maybe 70 to 80 per cent of the time,” said Mr Cheong, who visits Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre daily.

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