With its unmatched range of eating options, Singapore is a foodie paradise.
The Health Promotion Board (HPB) wishes it could also be a paradise which is just a little healthier.
Getting people to make healthier choices when dining out is a challenge, given the current lack of variety and availability of healthier meal options and the perception that healthy food is not delicious, said HPB.
In June, it pushed out a Healthier Dining Programme and, so far, about 12 per cent of the meals ordered at the programme's partner establishments are healthier meals.
It is not a figure to be scoffed at, considering the most recent data from a survey done a few years ago showed that just 1 per cent or less of the eat-out meals consumed by Singaporeans are healthier meals.
And the number is set to rise, as HPB adds more partner establishments to bring the total to 30 by the end of the year.
TREND OF HEALTHY EATING
Two restaurants chains on the programme - Swensen's and Fish & Co - which offer a selection of 500-calorie meals, have already reported rising demand for its healthier meals and anticipate a further rise in demand.
"Next year, we may look at introducing more healthier dishes," said Mr Andrew Khoo, director of business development and operations at the food and beverage division of ABR Holdings, which runs Swensen's.
"We are getting positive feedback and sales for these healthier dishes and we observe that the global trend is towards healthier eating."
It is a trend which HPB hopes will firmly take root here. It plans to increase the number of healthier eat-out meals to 180 million meals per year, or 20 per cent of all eat-out meals by 2020, said its chief executive, Mr Zee Yoong Kang.
"Our long-term goal is for people to make small changes in their diets to become accustomed to these healthier options, thus making the healthier choice the default choice."
NEW OPTIONS ON THE MENU
HPB started the Healthier Dining Programme with 18 restaurant chains, foodcourt chains, caterers and quick service providers, which cover about 700 outlets and stalls islandwide.
These include chains, such as McDonald's, Soup Restaurant, Kopitiam and NTUC Foodfare, as well as firms which cater to workplace canteens, such as Sodexo and The Wok People. "They have the reach and capacity to popularise healthier meals," said Mr Zee.
HPB has since added two more partners - Dosirak, which is located in China Square Central and sells Korean bento sets; and QQ Rice, a Taiwanese chain which sells rice balls.
The programme is an expansion on an earlier restaurant scheme, which required restaurants to provide healthier options - for instance, dishes with less salt and oil, as well as a scheme which encouraged hawkers to use healthier ingredients.
The new programme targets chain eateries and caterers to increase the accessibility to healthier food. One key focus is the provision of 500-calorie meals.
To qualify, restaurants have to:
1. provide at least three dishes with a lower-calorie content of 500 calories or below;
2. offer wholegrain items, such as brown rice and wholemeal bread, or use healthier cooking oil, such as olive, canola, peanut, soya bean or sunflower oil, in some dishes;
3. increase the presence of fruit or vegetable items in their menus;
4. serve sauces, gravy, cream or dressings on the side where possible, to help consumers limit their intake of sodium; and
5. serve free plain water and promote healthier beverages.
For foodcourts, such as Kopitiam and NTUC Foodfare, new and renewing tenants have to offer at least one 500-calorie meal option, while the drinks stall has to offer options which are lower in sugar content.
STILL AS TASTY
Now that the focus is on creating 500-calorie meals instead of changing the cooking method or ingredients of the dishes, food-service providers are more willing to join in, as it means they do not have to compromise on taste.
What HPB did first was to work with the eateries to identify existing items on their menus which qualified for the label. Often, these are popular items which customers are already familiar with.
For example, Dian Xiao Er's popular Herbal Roast Duck Rice qualified as the duck has little fat under the skin. The chain even went a step further to switch entirely from using palm oil to a healthier rice bran oil for all its dishes. It is absorbing the higher cost of the product, so customers do not have to pay more.
Meanwhile, other eateries created new 500-calorie versions of their popular menu items with help from HPB.
One of them is the Soup Restaurant's Earthen Bowl Steamed Rice With Chicken And Samsui Ginger Sauce, which is served with brown rice. It is a healthier 500-calorie version of its signature Samsui Ginger Chicken.
Right now, the restaurant is in the process of making sure more of its dishes contain fewer than 250 calories, said Ms Irin Lau, its head of marketing.
Beverage chain Smoothie King, on the other hand, worked with HPB to introduce new meal sets. "We carefully selected five smoothies and three food options to make up 15 healthy Mix & Match Meal Combo options, all under 500 calories," said Ms Leanne Lim, Smoothie King's marketing manager.
"We also reworked some of these items by increasing the portion of greens and reducing the amount of sauce in the recipes."
A WIN-WIN FOR ALL
Being on the HPB programme means the partner outlets get to be part of the marketing drive to get more people to eat healthy.
To generate demand for the initiative, HPB ran the Healthy Go Lucky campaign from June to last month, where diners who opt for Healthier Choice meals stood to win up to $300,000 worth of prizes.
It also deployed advertisement walkers in major suburban shopping malls, such as Jurong Point and nex Mall, on top of signboards at payment counters and stickers and decals at the shopfronts of participating outlets.
For instance, when Swensen's was offering its grilled chicken salad at half price, HPB helped to advertise the promotion on its website and through advertisement walkers, said Ms Fiona Chin, assistant marketing manager at the food services division of ABR Holdings.
Mr Jeremy Nguee, founder of gourmet caterer Preparazzi, which is also in the programme, pointed out that the tie-up has helped to widen his company's reach.
"It has helped to expose our brand to a broader customer segment, as we used to be known only by a very niche segment of the market," he said.
You probably would not think of going to Swensen's if you wanted to eat healthily.
However, the ice cream restaurant chain, which has 22 outlets and another one opening in Seletar Mall in a few weeks, does have healthier dishes.
Sales of its six 500-calorie meals have risen by about 15 per cent in the three-month period since they were introduced in the middle of the year.
"It's still a small percentage of overall sales, but it's growing. So, it's a positive trend," said Mr Andrew Khoo, director of business development and operations at the food and beverage division of ABR Holdings, which runs Swensen's and other food and beverage businesses.
Its six 500-calorie dishes, including teriyaki chicken pasta ($16.90) and grilled fish sambal ($15.90), were chosen for the Healthier Dining Programme.
"These dishes were engineered to be healthier in the first place. So, we didn't have to compromise on the taste," said Mr Khoo.
What has changed is that the sauces for the fish dishes are now served on the side, instead of smothered over the slab of fish. This way, consumers can decide how much sauce they want on their food.
The restaurant chain also created two new salads to boost its green offerings. Furthermore, it offers wholegrain bread as a choice of a side item, so customers can opt to substitute the unhealthier items, such as fries, with the bread.
It uses palm oil for its main dishes and olive oil for its pasta dishes.
Mr Khoo said the chain is looking at adding more healthier dishes and getting its two Earle Swensen's restaurants (higher-end versions of Swensen's) to join the programme next year.
FISH & CO
Fish & Co may be known for its huge seafood platters with deep-fried items, but demand for its relatively new low-calorie dishes has been climbing slowly but steadily.
In June, when it introduced 11 dishes which have calorie counts of below 500, it sold 4,100 of them across its 15 outlets in Singapore.
Sales of the dishes, which were offered as part of the Health Promotion Board's Healthier Dining Programme, rose to 4,800 orders last month.
A big part of the attraction are the lower prices: The 11 dishes are priced about 40 per cent cheaper than its regular offerings.
The chain simply reduced the portion size of its popular baked and grilled dishes to turn them into lower-calorie meals.
"Our regular main courses consist of one main item and two side items of the customer's choice. For the lower-calorie dishes, we reduced the portion of the main item and serve one side item instead of two," said Ms Tan Yilin, assistant marketing manager at Fish & Co Restaurants.
She said the chain had gathered customer feedback before it introduced the new items.
"They think that our portions are generous. Many cannot finish eating their meals."
In all, Fish & Co took about half a year to come up with the list of 11 dishes.
There was a lot of trial and error as it paired different items and sent different mains and side items to a food laboratory to check if they fell below 500 calories, said Ms Tan.
The 11 dishes include a shrimp and clam aglio olio which costs $8.95 (the regular version costs $15.95) and a dish of baked salmon with citrus crust and seasonal vegetables for $11.95 (the regular version, priced at $19.95, has two slabs of fish and two side items).
For its pasta dishes, customers can opt for wholegrain noodles at no extra cost. The chain uses olive oil for its pasta dishes and palm oil to cook the rest of the dishes.
Ms Tan said Fish & Co was already toying with the idea of offering healthier dishes before it joined HPB's programme.
"We got the idea to serve some healthier dishes from the United States. Restaurants there are promoting lower-calorie meals. It's the trend," she said.
Since it started in 2011, small gourmet caterer Preparazzi has been serving up meals made with high-quality ingredients.
Chef Jeremy Nguee, who founded Preparazzi as he wanted to get more people to `eat healthier, said his company uses better ingredients than many caterers here.
"I feel that if you eat better, you will live better," he said.
Preparazzi's approach means its food is also healthier and that was how it got on the Healthier Dining Programme.
"We were 'discovered' by the Health Promotion Board during a conference," said Mr Nguee, 33, a Singaporean. "We realised that our approach was known as 'seductive nutrition' or 'stealth health'."
That is, in short, getting people to eat healthier without a perceived loss in taste or flavour, he said.
"We want to change the perception that healthier can't be tasty."
Some examples of its healthy dishes include buckwheat soba with smoked salmon, which comes with caviar and chili furikake; and angus tenderloin with garlic confit puree, roast beetroot, pumpkin and spring vegetables.
Said Mr Nguee: "Our kitchen uses only canola, sunflower and soya bean oil, and we don't use processed food in our menus."
It also makes its own bread - from baguettes to brioche buns - to ensure there are no preservatives, he said.
Emphasis is placed on the natural flavours of food, so less seasoning is required.
"Instead of adding sugar, we will use a mango salsa or a fruit-based sauce. And instead of using salt, we may use parma ham or caviar."
The private-chef outfit typically caters for corporate events.
However, for the Healthier Dining Programme, Preparazzi has created set meals that are suitable for the public.
Each set comprises a balanced meal with healthier dessert options. These sets, for 12 to 15 people, cost $300 to $350.
Demand for the set meals is not high, but being on the programme has given them more bargaining power to convince their clients to eat healthy, said Mr Nguee.
"I have clients who ask for potato wedges or chicken nuggets. We don't serve deep-fried items, so I will suggest roasted potatoes instead."
This article was first published on Nov 6, 2014.
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