On the menu: Healthier meals across NUS campus

On the menu: Healthier meals across NUS campus
Mr Ng (left) and Mr Peh with some of the healthier dishes available at their food stalls in NUS. Their stalls have joined HPB's Healthier Dining Programme, under which they receive help to come up with healthier meal options.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The National University of Singapore is going healthy campus-wide soon, with every stall to have information about the calories in their dishes.

The institution engaged a vendor this year to help count the calories in hundreds of dishes across all the food stalls and dining outlets on campus, starting with the science canteen last month.

Calorie information will eventually be displayed on the menus of all the stalls over the next few years.

Mr Foo Tung Mooi, director of NUS' office of campus amenities, said the initiative aims to help students, staff and visitors make informed dining choices.

Last year, some of the university's dining outlets were certified by the Health Promotion Board as part of its Healthier Dining Programme (HDP), which aims to increase accessibility to healthier food.

Under the scheme, which started in 2014, food stalls must provide at least one 500-calorie meal in their menus.

More than 1,500 outlets islandwide are involved in the HDP.

Tenants can work with qualified wholesalers under the HPB to get subsidised healthy ingredients, and chefs are trained to relook ingredients and cooking methods.

Dining outlets across five canteens, two foodcourts and 10 restaurants and cafes on NUS' Kent Ridge and Bukit Timah campuses joined the HDP last year.

Other tertiary institutions such as Nanyang Technological University, SIM University and Singapore Management University also have some dining outlets that are HDP partners.

NUS said it does not track the obesity rates of its undergraduates, but The Straits Times reported in February that recent studies show that rising obesity in children and young adults will push up the rate of diabetes in Singapore.

A 2010 survey here showed that one in nine adults aged between 18 and 69 was obese, double the rate in 1992.

Obesity has been growing at a faster rate in people aged below 40. Weight gain begins when they start working and there is a drop in physical activity, say experts.

Obesity among schoolchildren has also risen - from 11 per cent in 2013 to 12 per cent in 2014, the Education Ministry said.

University food-stall operators said a good proportion of students choose the healthier meals on their menus.

Mr Alson Ng, operator of Indonesian Express, which serves dishes such as ayam panggang and ayam penyet at its four stalls in NUS, said 20 per cent to 30 per cent of students and staff choose the healthier option - steamed chicken with brown rice.

The dish has 475 calories compared with the 650 calories of the grilled chicken set with white rice.

His stalls have also changed their preparation methods, by boiling the chicken to remove excess oil before grilling or frying it. This removes about 30 per cent of oil, said Mr Ng. "Students naturally like the fried or grilled options, but it's good that they have the choice to eat healthily when on campus where many of them spend a lot of time," he said.

"During lunchtime, the brown rice can be sold out within an hour. It costs just 20 to 30 cents more to switch to brown rice."

Mr Sunny Peh, who runs FoodClique, a foodcourt at the NUS University Town, said: "Initially, the uptake (of the healthier dishes) wasn't that much but, over time, with knowledge and publicity on healthier dining, people become more aware of healthier living."

Mr Peh, who also owns a mixed vegetable stall at the foodcourt, said that besides using healthier oil, up to 70 per cent of the items at his stall are now vegetable dishes, up from less than 50 per cent in the past. There are also more dishes that are steamed or boiled, he said.

NUS science undergraduate Abigail Lai, 23, eats brown rice at her residential college, but said most undergraduates do not bother about healthier dining.

"Maybe it's a lack of knowledge about food and diet, or they don't think it's very important," she said. "Healthy food choices should start now, at a young age. Some things like calcium intake can't be fixed after the age of 30."

This article was first published on April 18, 2016.
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