South East Asia's rising rates of obesity and diabetes have led to many food and beverage companies reducing or substituting sugar in their products, and generally offering customers healthier alternatives — particularly after substantial government pressure.
But Food Industry Asia's nutrition officer Sabeera Ali believes the problem requires public and private sector cooperation to solve.
At the recent HI South East Asia trade show in Jakarta, she addressed common misconceptions about sugar substitutes and their impact on diabetes and obesity in the region.
A partnership of product and policy
Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia about the industry's response to these health issues, she said: "The industry has taken a proactive approach through its reformulation efforts, and responsible marketing and advertising to children, among other initiatives.
"The challenge is developing healthier alternatives without compromising on the taste, texture or flavour of the product.
"The industry has put in a lot of effort and resources to develop alternatives — be it through innovative technologies, or by making adjustments to existing recipes to match or improve taste profiles gradually, to ensure they are safe and do not drastically alter the products familiar to the consumer."
However, she added: "To further strengthen industry actions, collaboration with key stakeholders, such as the public sector, are necessary, as a multi-stakeholder approach has been shown to work."
Innovations and incentives
Indeed, the industry has invested in technologies that enable companies to reformulate their products and provide consumers with healthier options.
For instance, manufacturers can now lower the glycaemic index (GI) of traditionally high-GI foods such as rice, offering diabetics a more suitable alternative staple.
The variety of low- / non-caloric sweeteners (LNCS) has also increased, and they are now being used more widely in food products.
Ali maintained, however, that these industry innovations alone were insufficient in the fight against diabetes and obesity.
"There isn't a magic bullet that can prevent or treat diabetes on its own. Weight management goes beyond calorie reduction.
"This includes adopting a balanced diet, along with regular physical activity to reach and maintain one's optimal weight."
She further reinforced the importance of public sector intervention, using Singapore as an example: "The HPB’'s recent announcement of a S$15m grant to develop healthier ingredients highlights how collaboration can lead to beneficial outcomes for the actors in the health eco-system, and address the pressing health issues of society at large."