Changing sweet habits: Malaysian health official appeals to food outlets and manufacturers to slash beverage sugar content

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The Malaysian Ministry of Health is encouraging both food service outlets as well as beverage manufacturers to reduce sugar content in beverage products alongside the upcoming implementation of a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax in the country. ©Pixabay
The Malaysian Ministry of Health is encouraging both food service outlets as well as beverage manufacturers to reduce sugar content in beverage products alongside the upcoming implementation of a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax in the country. ©Pixabay

Related tags: Malaysia, sugar tax, Soda tax

The Malaysian Ministry of Health is encouraging both food service outlets as well as beverage manufacturers to reduce sugar content in beverage products alongside the upcoming implementation of a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax in the country.

According to reports, Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye has asked mamak shops (a common type of food outlet in Malaysia) in particular to ‘voluntarily reduce the sugar content’​ in drinks upon enforcement of the tax.

Mamak store drinks have received particular focus following a statement by local think tank Galen’s Chief Executive Azrul Mohd Khalib that the tax’s effectiveness will be limited​ as Malaysians have a ‘diverse selection of food and beverages to choose from’​.

“The beverages being taxed are but a small proportion of food and drink which are of poor nutrition and high in fat, sugar and salt,” ​he said.

“The list is long and arguably more problematic than soda drinks as they are consumed by the majority of consumers. These beverages will unfortunately escape taxation.

“Consumers will switch or increase preference to familiar alternatives such as sirap bandung, milo, teh tarik (tea and condensed milk), kopi susu (coffee with milk) and three-layered tea.”​

All of the beverages mentioned above are especially commonly consumed by locals in mamak shops.

As for beverage manufacturers, Dr Lee told Utusan Online​ that he wants products to have properly reduced sugar content and not just rely on alternatives like artificial sweeteners, as this would “increase manufacturing cost, and [possibly] cause more issues [later].”

“This does not mean that the [drinks] will contain no sugar, but just taste less sweet than before, so we hope [the manufacturers] will reduce sugar content.

“Although [this soda tax] is an initiative from the Ministry of Finance and not the Ministry of Health, we support this [policy]. So before implementation, we have also already been in discussions with [the manufacturers].”

Dr Lee added that it was hoped that this tax would change sweet beverage consumption habits, in hopes of tackling chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

“Malaysian tops the obesity scale in South-east Asia. We are the gold medallist. We also rank high for diabetes and hypertension,” ​he said to local media.

“The ministry hopes the people will understand the rationale of introducing this measure (soda tax).”

The sugar tax journey in Malaysia so far

Discussions surrounding the implementation of a sugar tax in Malaysia went as far back as August last year, when newly-elected Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad acknowledged the government was contemplating a soda tax​.

Academics and industry groups alike advocated for a more comprehensive approach​, suggesting taxing sugar as a whole instead of just soda as well as approaches that targeted more of behavioural change.

Penang Institute Senior Analyst Dr Lim Chee Han went further to suggest a ‘graded sugar tax model’​.

When Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng announced the soda tax​ later in the year, the decision continued to be met with a mix of approval and sceptism.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers Malaysian Food Manufacturing Group (FMM MAFMAG), speaking on behalf of companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, told FoodNavigator-Asia​ that the industry viewed this decision ‘with concern’​ and that ‘selective taxation is not an effective policy’​.

F&N also responded to the tax announcement by saying that it was looking at a possible price increase for some 90% of its products​.

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