Hongkongers need to better understand the health risks of our modern diet
Bernard Chan says change can't come without awareness of the problem
We naturally enjoy foods with sugar or salt. Sugars from fruit and other sources are essential to the way our bodies generate energy. Salt is needed to regulate the balance of fluids in our bodies. However, we can have too much of a good thing. Too much sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Too much salt can increase blood pressure and raise the risk of strokes, heart disease and other problems.
There is some debate about how much is too much. Some experts recommend that we basically view refined sugar as a poison. Meanwhile, recent American news reports have suggested that official guidance on salt intake may be unnecessarily cautious.
Several facts are clear. Modern diets, especially processed foods, have high levels of salt and sugar. The health problems they create can add up - so obesity from too much sugar plus high blood pressure from too much salt means a significantly higher risk of heart trouble. And many Hong Kong people today are likely to be at risk.
Last month, the secretary for food and health set up the Committee on Reduction of Sugar and Salt in Food. I have been appointed chairperson, and other members are from the medical, academic, education and food sectors. Our job will be to recommend ways to encourage everyone to eat safe levels of salt and sugar, and examine how to reduce the high amounts now found in some foods. Other parts of the world have already done much work on this, and we have an international panel of advisers to help us learn from others' experience.
I have a personal interest in this area. Following health problems of my own when I was younger, I have paid serious attention to my diet, weight and blood pressure. To policymakers, keeping society healthy is an economic issue. But to all of us as individuals and families, it is a matter not just of livelihood but of happiness.
I also have some experience of the regulatory angle. As a lawmaker, I was chairman of the Legislative Council subcommittee for new nutritional labelling regulations in 2007-08. It was clear then that we were dealing with far more than just a business-versus-consumers issue, and I think that is also going to be the case with sugar and salt.
One thing we need to do is get more detailed information about Hong Kong people's current intakes. Past surveys of certain population groups in Hong Kong suggest that some people eat too much salt, and research shows that many common products like instant noodles, school lunch boxes and processed fruit juice have very high levels of salt or sugar. Surveys also show that a third of over-55s have high blood pressure, and over a third of those between 18 and 64 are overweight or obese.
This is not about suddenly slashing salt and sugar levels in foods. Not only the industry but consumers themselves would resist that. The World Health Organisation has a target of reducing salt intake over 10 years, which sounds far more realistic. Nor is this about totally avoiding soy sauce, ice cream or whatever you enjoy. Healthy moderation is the aim.
The key thing will be to make sure that everyone has access to knowledge and information about diet and health. For example, how many of us realise how much sugar and salt are in canned vegetables or bread? We also need to encourage people to monitor their weight, blood pressure and other indicators over time, so they can adjust their diets as they age.
Hopefully, we can ensure that the next generation grows up with more awareness of how refined sugar and salt can cause harm, and how to avoid eating too much of them. As someone who in his younger days ate too many instant noodles, I know for myself that healthy eating in modern times is something we need to be taught.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council