HPB serves up plan for hawker stalls to sell healthier dishes

SINGAPORE - Four in 10 hawker stalls will be selling at least one healthier dish by 2019, if the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) latest effort at getting Singaporeans to choose healthy food pays off.

For starters, HPB has identified a list of 63 dishes that tend to be under 500 calories. These include dishes such as beef noodle soup, masala thosai and mee soto.

Dishes at each stall will be checked to ensure they meet the calorie limit. If they do, the stall gets a label that marks the dish as the healthier option. There are about 13,000 hawker stalls in Singapore.

The move to identify healthier food at hawker centres is part of the Healthier Dining Programme, and now covers more than 2,700 outlets in over 60 hawker centres and 450 coffee shops.

The programme first began in June 2014, with restaurants and food courts. Hawker food used to be part of a different scheme – the Healthy Hawker Food Programme – which has ended. 

The old scheme encouraged hawkers to offer healthier versions of popular foods, such as char kway teow, using healthy oil or less salt. However, HPB chief executive Zee Yoong Kang said the scheme was “very heavy going”.

He said: “It was very high-risk move for many of the hawkers, who had to change the recipes of dishes that had been developed over several decades.”

Changes were also made on a stall-by-stall basis, which meant progress was slower. The scheme was shelved and HPB began exploring other ways to get Singaporeans to eat healthy. 

The aim is to give people the information they need to make better decisions about hawker food, said Senior Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat yesterday.

“We are not aiming to make every stall one that offers healthier options, or to make every item on their menus a healthier option,” said Mr Chee. In fact, some dishes cannot be modified to become healthier without compromising on taste, he added. 

“I think it’s perfectly fine to have a range of options for consumers to choose from,” he said.

Mr Chee was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre, where two-thirds of food and drink stalls already offer at least one healthier option.

According to the National Nutrition Survey in 2010, six in 10 Singaporeans buy lunch and dinner – or have both these meals – at the shops, at least four times a week.

A single shop-bought meal usually contains 700 to 800 calories on average. Men typically require about 2,200 calories a day, and women need about 1,800 calories daily.

Yong Hwa Delights stallholder Sim Kay Yeow was given the low-calorie label for his fishball noodle soup. Said the third-generation hawker: “It’s healthier because our fishballs are all handmade, so we know what goes into them. And there are no preservatives.” 

Mr John Ng, 60, who was having lunch with his family at Bedok Interchange hawker centre yesterday, said the labels could sway him to change his eating behaviour once in a while.

“I am not very particular but I am still conscious of what I am eating,” said Mr Ng, a  managing director. “For example, I only eat curry chicken noodles once in a while because it can be very oily,” he added.