Education’s the way to curb sugar intake

PETALING JAYA: Exempting sweetened handcrafted beverages like bubble tea and teh tarik from the sugar tax means the government’s drive for a healthier country could be missing a significant segment of the population, said public health nutritionist Dr Tee E Siong.

“Handmade drinks like teh tarik are not captured when the government implemented the sugar tax, and if there is a large number of people consuming beverages that are not under the sugar tax, then the government’s target has missed a big faction of people.

“The next best thing is to educate the people that these foods contain a lot of sugar and that they should watch out,” Dr Tee said.

The sugar tax was imposed on manufacturers of ready-to-drink beverages starting July 1, but handcrafted drinks do not fall under the list.

Conceding that the option of taxing sugar at the source or imposing a tax on all sugared drinks may not be a politically wise move, Dr Tee said the most sustainable move for moderating sugar intake was to educate the public on healthy eating.

“Taxing sugar at the source is one option but the government has not taken this solution. It may not be the best move now,” he added.

Although consumers can opt for less sugar in their bubble teas, other additional ingredients in the drinks like tapioca pearls, red bean and jellies and toppings such as cheese foam and cookie crumbs still contained a lot of sugar.

Dietitian Rachel Tso, in her article “What’s In My Bubble Tea?”, said a 500ml serving of milk tea with pearls contain sweeteners equivalent to eight teaspoons of sugar, with one teaspoon equivalent to 5g.

The same size serving of brown sugar milk tea with pearls has a whopping 18.5 teaspoons of sugar (92.5g), while the winter melon tea has 16 teaspoons of sugar (80g).

Fruit-based drinks like the mango green tea have eight teaspoons of sugar (40g) while jasmine green teas with fruits contain 8.5 teaspoons.

In comparison, a can of regular cola had seven teaspoons of sugar (35g), said Tso who is with Singapore’s Mount Alvernia Hospital.

Dr Tee said that it all boiled down to imparting comprehensive education about healthy living to the people by the government, healthcare professionals and groups.

He acknowledged that although there were campaigns spearheaded by the government to encourage people to take less sugar, more emphasis was needed in this effort.

“I would prefer a large overall campaign rather than focusing on sugar alone. Excessive sugar is definitely a contributor to health problems, but there are other factors too, such as excessive carbohydrates,” he added.

Dietitian Chong Jia Jun agreed with Dr Tee that educational campaigns were the best long-term solutions to change the people’s mindset about sugar.

“We need more health events in general. The Malaysian Dietitians’ Association is also carrying out more events to raise awareness about sugary drinks,” said Chong, who is with Assunta Hospital and also an MDA member.

He agreed that imposing a sugar tax on sweetened handcrafted beverages could also be another solution that would be just as effective as organising awareness campaigns.

“Everyone knows that excessive sugar is bad but does not yet have the readiness to change,” he said.

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