In brief

Near-infrared spectroscropy reveals local ethnic cuisines are generally calorie-heavy, with Indian cuisine more calorie-dense than Chinese and Malay cuisines.

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Surprising truths about hawker favourites

23 Nov 2022

A*STAR researchers measure the caloric and nutritional profiles of popular local dishes, revealing that they may be more guilty pleasures than healthy staples.

Singaporeans with grumbling tummies often make a beeline to their nearest hawker centre, where mingling aromas of fried carrot cake, nasi lemak and biryani delight the senses. These and other local favourites are increasingly everyday staples for the multicultural Lion City; in 2019, only 40 percent of us ate home-cooked meals on most days, according to the Asia-Pacific Food Forward Trends Report II.

But with national obesity rates also creeping up in recent years, nutrition experts can’t help but ask: could overindulging at our local eateries be partly to blame?

Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, Deputy Executive Director at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) says that having a sense of a dish’s calorie content, or energy density, can influence whether a person will choose to eat it. Unfortunately, the calorie and macronutrient profiles of many local foods have yet to be extensively determined, making it difficult for people to make informed, healthy choices when it comes to their meals.

In their study, Henry and colleagues worked towards bridging this gap by first surveying popular meals among Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans—the three largest ethnic groups in the country. The survey results were then narrowed down to a list of 15 food favourites per ethnic group, forming a representative cuisine list for each.

Next, the researchers used an instrument called the CalorieAnswer® to measure the calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates in these dishes. Unlike the traditional bomb calorimetry that is used for the estimation of the energy content of foods, the CalorieAnswer® uses near-infrared spectroscopy (NIR) which measures light scattering and absorption of the food. The energy content of the food is then computed using an algorithm.

“CalorieAnswer® gives values in what we call ‘metabolisable energy’, which more accurately represents the calorie content available to the human body from food when eaten,” Henry explained.

The team discovered that while popular menu choices varied widely in their nutritional content, a common trait was being both calorie- and carbohydrate-heavy. Every 100 grams of Chinese and Malay cuisine packed an average of 661 and 652 kJ (a measure of calories). Indian cuisine was the most calorie-dense, averaging 723 kJ per 100 grams of food, and had relatively more fat and less protein compared to other cuisines.

Henry says this doesn’t mean Singaporeans need to avoid roti prata and curry altogether—variety is the spice of life.

“We must keep the results of this study in perspective,” Henry said. “Although Indian foods had greater calorie content and Malay foods had greater calorie variability, it is common in our society to indulge in various cuisines available in Singapore,” adding that this could help strike a healthier balance.

Moving forward, Henry’s team will work with government and industry partners to create new, healthier versions of classic local favourites. “Our next line of research aims to collaboratively develop lower-calorie recipes with an acceptable taste,” said Henry.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).

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Yeo, P.L.Q., Bi, X., Yeo, M.T.Y. and Henry, C.J. Energy Content and Nutrient Profiles of Frequently Consumed Meals in Singapore. Foods 10 , 1659 (2021). | article

About the Researcher

Christiani Jeyakumar Henry is the Deputy Executive Director at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and Director of A*STAR’s Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC). He obtained a PhD degree in nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Henry’s research focuses on translating nutrition research into food applications. In 2010, he was awarded the British Nutrition Foundation Prize for his outstanding contributions to nutrition, and in 2019, he was awarded the Kellogg’s International award for food research that led to a global impact.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group