Alarming. Pandemic. Crisis. It's the words to sum the situation of non-communicable disease (NCD) in our country. According to National Health and Morbidity Survey of 2015, almost one out of five Malaysians has diabetes. The projection was set in 2020 but came true five years early. Other finding shows nearly half of our population are overweight -the highest prevalence in the region. According to a The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report, obesity cost our country RM4.3 - RM8.6 billion last year - an equivalent of 10 and 19 per cent of our country's healthcare spending.
The lack of physical activity coupled with unhealthy diet that comprises excessive calories, high consumption of sugar or salt among us are seen as the main contributing factor to high NCD in Malaysia. Many initiatives like social media, creating collaboration among stakeholders, awareness among people and even a new logo to help consumer choose healthier food products has been created to improve our Malaysian health. The abolishment of subsidies for sugar back in 2013 in hope to decrease sugar consumption, did not achieve its intended goal. How can we tackle the NCD pandemic more effectively? PHREAM believes the next step lies in improving the product labelling and how nutrition information is conveyed to consumers.
Do a simple survey on a range of your favourite food and beverages. Look at benefits of using their products, creatively printed on front packaging vs. Ministry of Health's mandatory nutritional information panel (NIP) at the back. While these products claim of its single or multiple ingredients contribute to good health, sometimes the composition of overall ingredients does not and may affect your health in a longer period time. For example, in 2016 Dr. Guy-Andre' Pelouze from Institute of Clinic Research founder talked about how low-fat products were added sugars to be more palatable to consumers. The question we should ask ourselves is do consumers look into NIP on level of sugar, salt and fat when making healthier purchase decisions? More study need to be done on the level of awareness and understanding on NIP. Subsequently, improve how NIP is presented. For example, use teaspoon illustrations or colour code (red - presence of rich sugar) to communicate the level of sugar in a product. In addition, a statement should be included in all product reminding consumers sugar intake for adults inclusive of hidden sugar should not exceed 10 teaspoons a day or 50grams (source: www.myhealth.gov.my). World Health Organization in its latest statement on sugar declared a further reduction to 25grams would provide additional health benefits. Consumer friendly information that is effectively communicated to buyers is important for them to make a healthier choice/ purchase.
While this is true to packaged food products, the same cannot be said to food, drinks and our favourite delicacies sold by vendors, restaurants and cafe where NIP is absent. A study and more research need to be done on how to convey nutrition information at these establishments. One good example is calorie labelling on restaurant menus and vending machines which is regulated by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition to listing calories, a recommended daily calorie intake should be added across this menu to help consumers make a healthier choice.
A balanced diet, coupled with healthy lifestyle and exercise is key to prevention and improve one's well-being. Continuous and aggressive consumer education with improvement to existing regulation is paramount to improve our Malaysian's NCD pandemic situation with cooperation of all stakeholders.
by Sharvin A. Subramaniam
Public Health Research and Education Association of Malaysia (PHREAM)