Sugar is no sweet success

The commodity’s manufacturers and distributors have found an unlikely ally in the Health Ministry in pushing up the prices of sugar.

IN ANCIENT times, sugar was considered equal in value to salt; the two items were often said to be the main ingredients in any dish, especially those fit for kings.

Sugar is an extravagant commodity that has made many billionaires, but at the same time it has also bankrupted a few nations and brought down a couple of governments.

Malaysia’s richest man Tan Sri Robert Kuok is often referred to as the “Sugar King” because that was how he reputedly made his money in the early days.

Two years ago, his company got out of the local sugar business. It was reported that Kuok’s PPB Group Bhd got RM1.25bil from the sale of its sugar refineries and land used for sugar cane cultivation to Felda.

It is said that his “Sugar King” crown has gone to his one-time partner Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary.

One will never know exactly why Kuok exited the sugar business, although it was noted two years ago that with his total wealth estimated at about RM40bil (and now RM50bil), getting out of a business worth RM1.25bil seemed to make sense.

There was also speculation then that Kuok got out of the business because the sugar business was not as profitable any more as when the commodity was a controlled item. Profitability is highly dependent on government subsidy.

It was also reported then that the Government was thinking of reducing its subsidy on foodstuff as it was becoming a burden to the nation.

Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry secretary-general Datuk Mohd Zain Mohd Dom, in announcing the price increase of coarse and fine sugar by 20 sen on Monday, said the government subsidy on sugar had been reduced to RM116.6mil from RM400mil, since allowing the price of the commodity to rise last year.

The price of sugar has gone up by 85 sen a kilo since January 2010 but even at its new price of RM2.30 per kilo, Zain said, prices of items that use sugar as a raw material – including food and beverages – should not go up by more than five sen.

Last year, Malaysia imported 1.2 million tonnes of sugar, of which 60% was consumed by households and retailers.

Without a doubt, we Malaysians are consuming way too much sugar and our sweet tooth is not only costing the Government a lot of money but also damaging our health.

According to Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, 14.9% of Malaysians are diabetic, up from 8% of the population in 1996, compared with just 9% for China.

At the same time, studies showed that the number of obese adults increased from 4.4% in 1996 to 14% in 2006. Liow credited these worrying figures directly to our sweet tooth.

“So, when the Cabinet was discussing the global increase of foodstuff recently, I told my colleagues that the price of sugar must be allowed to climb,” said Liow, a qualified nutritionist.

“A price increase is the best way to encourage Malaysians to reduce their sugar intake.”

Over the past few years, Malay­sians have become aware of the need to do so and we now often hear the phrase “kurang manis” when drinks are ordered at mamak shops.

A dietician once told me that the frequent teh tarik sessions were mainly responsible for the high sugar intake among Malaysians.

“Teh tarik consists of milk sweetener or condensed milk plus sugar! That is definitely too sweet. Malay­sians must take their teh tarik less sweet, preferably with less than a teaspoon of sugar,” she said.

She noted that every confectionary item in Malaysia – from bread to fancy cakes and even the humble pisang goreng – is a “diabetic trap”.

“I have even seen people use sugar to coat their roti canai and using milk sweetener as jam for bread,” she added.

These days, since being diagnosed with diabetes, I have started using a new word when ordering my drinks – “kosong” (empty) or without sugar.

When I first did this, those selling the drinks used to do a double take and repeat my order in case they had it wrong.

The stall owner at my regular coffeeshop even remarked how I could drink my thick kopi-O without sugar, saying she would surely vomit. Unfortunately, she was also diagnosed as diabetic soon after. And she too has learnt to take her kopi-O without sugar.

In the past decade, my family members have also taken to drinking their drinks with as little sugar as possible.

We use coarse brown sugar at home, which is supposedly healthier and a kilo can last us for months.

In this modern day, where life seems so much more fragile, it would seem that towkay Kuok knew what he was doing when he quit the sugar business. He must have known that it was time to go kosong as well.

> The Star Executive Editor Wong Sai Wan also does not use artificial sweeteners and have learnt that sugar and spice are not all things nice.

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