27 October 2016
Sometimes, a bowl of tom yum kung can contain more than the recommended daily intake of salt. Photo: internet
Sometimes, a bowl of tom yum kung can contain more than the recommended daily intake of salt. Photo: internet

Promoting healthier eating habits – challenges and solutions

Like many of us in Hong Kong, I enjoy an occasional bowl of borscht.

It is a soup that brings back memories.

As a fan of Thai cuisine, I also like tom yum kung.

Not only do these and other soups taste delicious; they are supposed to be healthy and nutritious.

Unfortunately, this may not be totally true.

The Consumer Council and the Center for Food Safety have just released a study of popular soups sold in Hong Kong restaurants and in packaged form in stores.

The research shows that they often contain surprisingly high amounts of salt.

One serving of borscht typically has around half a full day’s recommended sodium intake, while tom yum can be closer to two-thirds.

Miso also tends to have high sodium content.

Salt is a necessary part of our diet.

But too much can create serious health problems, notably high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke and other chronic illnesses.

Last year, the Hong Kong government appointed a Committee on Reduction of Sugar and Salt in Food.

I am the chairman, and the board has a range of members with expertise in the medical, academic and educational fields as well as the food sector.

Drawing on overseas experience and input from the local community, we are working on ways to encourage everyone to eat safe levels of salt and sugar – and reduce the levels found in some foods, like those soups.

When I was younger, I had health problems that have since led me to look after my diet, weight and blood pressure.

To government, keeping people healthy is a matter of economics.

But all of us owe it to ourselves and our families to actively take care of our well-being, to have happy and fulfilling lives.

I also have some experience of the regulatory angle.

When I was in the Legislative Council, I chaired the subcommittee for new nutritional labeling regulations in 2007-08.

Regulating foods for health reasons is a complex issue.

There is a business-versus-consumers side to it, but it is also about convincing consumers themselves that they should be prepared to change their lifestyles and even accept things like changes to the flavor of their foods.

One key challenge is making sure consumers have the information they need to make decisions.

The CC/CFS study revealed surprisingly large differences in salt levels in apparently similar soups from different restaurants and other sources.

One sample of tom yum had an incredible 2,016mg of sodium – just over the 2,000mg recommended daily allowance – but another had 888mg.

The researchers had bad news for people who think Chinese soups are always healthy.

Kudzu root soup – a very traditional dish – and the classic pork with radish and carrot soup had less salt than some of the international recipes. But even these, in many cases, contained at least a third of the recommended daily allowance, just in a one-bowl serving.

The Consumer Council found that some restaurants were willing to reduce the amount of salt they used, but others were afraid of losing customers.

This is one of the main challenges with reducing salt and sugar in food and the reason we must educate and inform people rather than just apply top-down pressure on the industry to change.

The council urges customers to provide feedback to restaurants if they think the food has too much salt, as restaurants want to give customers what they want.

It also encourages people to be careful when they cook at home.

Natural ingredients and other seasonings like spices and herbs can all make a meal more flavorful without just adding salt.

The news is not all bad.

Some fast-food chains are already reducing salt and sugar in their products.

In some overseas markets, the food industry is reducing the size of the packs of flavoring in instant noodles or putting less sugar in sachets in coffee shops.

And some markets have smartphone apps to help consumers when they shop.

You point your phone and scan a product’s barcode – and you get a quick colour-coded report on it and suggestions for something healthier, if necessary.

And you can share this information with your social media contacts.

But the key is awareness – and hopefully the Consumer Council report will help open people’s eyes.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress

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