Cut back on sugar, salt and fat. This has been the constant reminder for Malaysians, especially of late.
The much-quoted statistics scream out that we are not exactly the healthiest nation with the rise in the incidence of obesity and non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
In a paper published in the scientific journal Nature in February this year, a team of UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) scientists argued that increased global consumption of sugar is primarily responsible for a whole range of chronic diseases that are reaching epidemic levels around the world.
The scientists, describing sugar as a toxic, addictive substance, said that like alcohol and cigarettes, sale of sugar should also be highly regulated with taxes, laws on where and to whom it can be advertised, and even age-restricted.
Where salt is concerned, there is strong evidence that excessive intake can raise blood pressure, and high blood pressure is an important factor in strokes.
And so, time and again, we are being warned that we still do not have the right level of awareness when it comes to the "hidden evils" in our delicious morsels of food.
The most recent reminder came two weeks ago from Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai when he announced that 35 major food and beverage (F&B) producers and fast food companies have been asked to reduce the sugar and salt content in their products.
The companies including those producing infant formula, cereals and carbonated drinks have also been told to reduce the trans fat (or trans fatty acids) content in their products. It will be a voluntary move on the manufacturer's part but the ministry has given them a deadline.
In a recent interview, Liow says the ministry encourages manufacturers to produce healthier products with less salt and sugar.
"These products can have nutritional claims provided they comply with the specific requirements under the Food Regulations 1985," he says.
For instance, products with "low sugar" claims should contain no more than 5g per 100g (solid) or 2.5g per 100ml (liquid) of sugar while products labelled as sugar-free should contain not more than 0.5g per 100g (solid) or 0.5g per 100ml (liquid) of sugar.
While there is no database available as to how many manufacturers are using too much of these ingredients, the ministry has already taken steps to monitor the number of products that have reduced salt and sugar content.
"The food industry has given their commitment to producing healthier food products especially those with low sugar and salt. These are mainly manufacturers of beverages, biscuits, bakeries, canned fruits, milk and dairy products," he says.
When nutrient content claims are made, the levels are specified in the Guide To Nutrition Labelling and Claims, he adds.
Read the nutrition label
Read the nutrition label
While some view the much-loved pisang goreng as merely a snack, Malaysian Dietitians' Association newsletter editor Mushidah Zakiah Mohad Akran is quick to remind us that it contains a lot of fat.
"But some people think that because it is not rice, then it's okay. It's not as simple as that," she says, pointing out that the snack is high in fat, especially saturated fat, and calories.
More important, she points out that many people are still not aware of the high content of sugar in carbonated drinks, cakes and pastries.
Sodium and the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) are present in food served at many restaurants, she says, adding that even tomato ketchup and chilli sauce are loaded with sugar and sodium.
When it comes to food perceived as "healthy", such as wholemeal bread, cereal, yogurt and yogurt drinks, and muesli bars, more often than not manufacturers focus on just one or two ingredients (when it comes to labelling), says Mushidah Zakiah.
Taking wholemeal bread as an example, she says the emphasis will be on the whole grain. As for yogurt drinks, the selling point would be their (supposedly) high content of natural bacteria.
"Most consumers would overlook the sugar that makes food like yogurt drinks taste nice," she says.
It is therefore important to read the nutrition facts labels carefully to check the sugar content in such products, she reminds.
"Look at all the ingredients rather than just one, and don't go overboard in eating wholemeal bread even though it is healthier than its white counterpart."
International Medical University adjunct senior lecturer and dietitian Goo Chui Hoong says that having "traffic light coding" for nutrition labels, as is being done in Britain, could be considered for Malaysia as it would make it easier for individuals to identify healthy or unhealthy food.
The system on the packaging indicates if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fats, sugar and salt.
Red denotes high, amber is medium and green means low. The more "green" there is, the healthier the choice.
Goo, who worked as a dietitian in Britain for about 10 years, adds that labelling in Malaysia can be "sneaky". She cites products such as chips that are touted to be free of MSG but contained mononatrium glutamate, another kind of flavour enhancer.
When eating out, it is best to avoid having too much gravy, she says. If one is eating noodle soup, avoid drinking the soup, she advises.
"Avoid processed ingredients like sausages and luncheon meat which have a higher sodium content. Stick to sliced fish or meat," she says, adding that fishballs can be limited to one or two pieces.
Primary school canteens, she also points out, hardly offer healthy choices.
"There are a lot of unhealthy fried stuff and MSG-laden soup, and even the buns there are laden with cream. There are sweet drinks also."
The way food is cooked can also determine whether it is healthy or otherwise. Former professional chef Richard Augustin says the secret to cooking tasty food is in getting fresh produce. If the produce is fresh, there is no need to use additives like MSG, he says.
As an example, he says steaks require only black pepper and salt if the meat is fresh.
"You don't need a sauce, not even tomato or chilli sauce. It isn't supposed to be eaten that way," he insists.
Augustin, who currently co-hosts a food talk show called The Om Nom Show on a local radio station, substitutes sugar with honey and molasses to flavour his coffee and recommends olive oil for pan-fried items and salad dressing.
Boutique bakery Just Heavenly director Nigel Skelchy says the "more natural, the better" when it comes to baking.
"We are very stringent about our cakes," he says, advising against using pre-processed flour and sugar substitutes.
"It's about using natural ingredients like flour, butter and sugar. Sugar is a natural preservative. I make my own marmalade and it can last for months."
Skelchy also suggests using vegetable oil if one does not want to use butter when baking.
And do not buy products that have a list of ingredients that one cannot pronounce, he says.
"If the ingredient has more than four syllables, best not to buy it," he quips.