The problem is limited access to healthier food options, not 24-hour eateries, says leading nutritionist

Fried rice

The government should spearhead initiatives to ensure consumers have access to healthier food options when they dine at eateries.

Malaysia’s leading nutrition expert, Tee E Siong, said while consumers could have healthier food options when they dine outside, it is often something that is overlooked.

“As a nutritionist who has been working in this field for some time, I think it is possible. And it is not just (the food sold) in Indian Muslim restaurants, but also coffee shops and other eateries,” said Tee.

“(The problem is) we are not giving enough attention in this area. We are always saying processed and packed foods contain too much fat, oil, and salt, but we ignore the food sold in eateries.”

Tee’s comments come on the heels of the Consumers’ Association of Penang’s (CAP) call on Monday for the 24-hour operating licences of eateries to be cancelled to reduce the negative effects of late-night snacking.

Tee, who served as head of the Cardiovascular, Diabetes, and Nutrition Research Centre of the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur before retiring in February 2002, said 24-hour eateries should not bear the blame alone.

“It is about working together with food vendors across the board, and this includes teaching them how to prepare healthier meals.

“More vegetables ought to be served. Food vendors can also offer grilled chicken and fish, as opposed to just deep-fried options,” he said.

However, Tee said, on the flip side, food operators will say that they were merely following consumer demand.

“They will say that if consumers want food with a lot of santan, fat and sugar, they are just giving them what they want.”

Tee says educating consumers is also another aspect that must be looked into.

The government, Tee said, can spearhead this effort, with incentives given to eateries that offer consumers healthier food options.

“There can be a star rating system that indicates that a particular eatery offers healthy meals, and this would attract people who want healthier options to frequent these restaurants,” he said.

“Food operators too, can put up signs, if their eateries offered whole grain options, for example, or whole grain noodles,” Tee said, adding that this was a practice adopted by hawker centres in Singapore.

He also added that healthier food options should not be more expensive.

“Yes, there is that perception, but if you are already reducing oil, sugar, and santan, food items should cost less,” he added.

Earlier today, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad acknowledged the call by CAP but said the suggestion needs to be fine-tuned, and this includes engaging with stakeholders to understand the issue, and offer an effective solution.

Dzulkefly was quoted in Free Malaysia Today, that a proposal will be prepared to be reviewed by the ministry and the government for further action.

Malaysian Indian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association (Presma) president, Datuk Jawahar Ali Taib Khan, said that instead of a total ban on 24-hour eateries, there should be a thorough study on the location and lifestyle of the individual communities so that its members can meet the needs of all parties, not only restaurant owners and the related industries.

He added that hanging out at these restaurants has become a part of the Malaysian culture, and has no direct correlation with the health issues raised by CAP and other detractors.

“The 24-hour restaurant is not the main cause of Malaysians’ health problems. It is influenced by other factors such as the individual’s healthy lifestyle practices,” said Jawahar, who added that Presma had previously suggested to the government that permission to operate for 24 hours should be based on the performance of its members.

“Over the past few years, it has become the culture in Malaysia to make Indian Muslim restaurants a ‘one-stop centre’, not only for eating and drinking, but also as a place to socialise after work, because of the conducive and easily accessible atmosphere.

“Presma is open to views and suggestions and is ready to discuss this issue for the benefit of all parties.”

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