Protecting our children from unhealthy food advertising: Needs more than a pledge

Reality bites – Malaysia is the fattest country in Southeast Asia and ranked number six in the whole of Asia. The Consumers’ Association of Penang will support good measures proposed by the Government to curb the obesity epidemic. But good measures should be legally binding and enforceable, not based on pledges or promises which can be broken with no punitive measures.

Through the “Responsible Advertising to Children Pledge”, 10 major F&B companies have promised not to advertise via the broadcast and print media. The pledge was done in collaboration with the Health Ministry, Malaysian Advertisers Association and the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) Food Manufacturing group.

The pledge may seem like a good effort where our Health Ministry works together with corporations to protect children from irresponsible advertising. Based on the pledge, they agreed not to advertise to target young children (12 years old and below) unless their products adhere to the nutrition criteria based on scientific evidence or international dietary guidelines.

They have also committed not to engage in any publicity targeting schools, unless, they are invited by schools for educational purposes. This is a bad exception as health education in our schools should not be tainted with business and marketing interests of these companies. Food companies should be banned from our classrooms.  

Education for healthy food choices must be conducted by more credible organizations – like the education department from the Ministry of Health.

In order to stop advertisements targeting children as prime consumers, we need more than just a pledge. The Government has to come out with strict laws to protect our children from exploitation by irresponsible advertisers.

Ban food adverts for children under 12

Sweden and Norway have banned advertising to children under 12 as they do not have the capacity to recognise advertisements or critically analyse them. In the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark, and Belgium advertising to children is restricted.

In Malaysia, fast food advertisements are only banned on children’s TV programmes and fast food advertisers are not allowed to sponsor them. However it does not mean they do not watch TV programmes or advertisements during other times.  

This is a small measure with limited impact. Vulnerable children under 12 should be protected from exploitation by advertisers. We should follow the example of Sweden and Norway to have a blanket ban on advertisements targeting children under 12. The ban should include advertisements in the newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, handouts and the online media.

Measures in schools

Since 1980s, CAP has been firm on its stand in calling for a ban on vending machines in schools. Junk food is also being sold in schools despite guidelines being established for healthy foods in our school canteens.  And junk food sellers are operating near the schools despite guidelines which bar them from these areas. We need stricter punitive measures to protect our children from consuming unhealthy foods in schools.  

Parents should realise that younger children do not understand persuasive intent in advertising and tend to interpret commercials as accurate and truthful information. They are simply not aware that the content they are seeing are advertisements and cannot differentiate between programme and advertisement content at that tender age.

Common products targeted at children are sugary cereals, sweets, candy, junk foods and fast foods. Such advertising may contribute to lifetime poor nutritional habits. Teach them to eat home-cooked food, and to nurture a culture to take home-cooked foods to schools.

Children's health or corporations’ wealth

We are what we eat. And children's eating habits should not be molded by food companies. The future health of our nation depends on the food habits of our children now. We need to ban advertisements to children to protect them from unhealthy food choices provided by food companies.  Ultimately, the Government must decide whether they want to protect the health of our children or wealth for the corporations.

Letter to the Editor – 26 August 2013

The kitchen is the heart of our home

As food for the family is prepared in the kitchen it has an important role to play in the lives of  families. Nothing warms the heart of a husband like the smell of dinner cooking as he walks in from a hard day’s work. Besides, having a meal together  can bring  the family closer.

Unfortunately times have  changed, cooking and eating together among family members is  no longer the norm for many families. As more women are working outside their homes, cooking for the family is no longer done on a regular basis.

Food is plentiful, cheap and easily available in Malaysia. There are the night markets, hawkers, and  fast-food restaurants, while 24-hour eateries offer chapatti and ginger tea for anyone feeling hungry at three in the morning.

These commercialised meals pose serious health problems for consumers. For example they are high in fat, sugar and salt and are often prepared in unhygienic condition.

Malaysians have good reasons to curb the widespread use of fats and sugars in local food as it has one of the highest rates of diabetes, strokes and heart disease in Southeast Asia. In 2000, 7.6% of Malaysians over the age of 20, or 1.82 million people, were diabetic in a country of nearly 24 million people, according to the World Health Organisation.

Experts blame rising affluence, a sedentary lifestyle and a growing trend of working mothers for the rise in health problems. Generally Malaysians are eating more and eating higher-calorie food.

According to government statistics more than two-thirds of Malaysians aged more than 18 do not exercise. 54% of the adult population is either obese or overweight, compared to only 24.1% 10 years ago. As a result 7 out of 10 Malaysian adults suffer from chronic diseases.

Diabetes and end stage renal failure is a serious health problem in Malaysia. It is estimated that there are 13,000 kidney patients undergoing dialysis and that every year 2,500 people join the ranks of end-stage renal failure patients.

Another major health concern is that four out of five people with diabetes will die of heart disease (the number 1 killer in the country). Six new cases of stroke occur every hour in Malaysia.

Surveys have shown that for every two known diabetics, there is at least one more who never know of having the disease (and by extension, may never seek treatment) until irreversible complications set in.

Worse still, Type 2 diabetes is seen as no longer a disease of middle or old age – children as young as 10 years old suffering from diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2) are not an uncommon sight nowadays.

Doctors found that the young diabetics are usually obese, and their condition could be traced to eating too much unhealthy food and having a sedentary lifestyle. According to the survey, Type 2 diabetes  is more apparent in people aged between 18 and 29, however there are also children below 10 years inflicted by the disease.

A senior consultant pediatrician said that “The children’s bad dietary habits of eating burgers, nuggets, fried chicken, fries and carbonated drinks are contributing factors to obesity. Long hours of homework, watching television and playing computer games added to the problem.”

High sugar intake (which also causes obesity) among Malaysians is one of the contributing factors to the high incidence of diabetes.We consume 26 teaspoons of sugar a day and are the eighth highest sugar users in the world.

In spite of campaigns by the government to educate the public to lead a healthy lifestyle the health of our nation has deteriorated over the years. The number of people inflicted with non -communicable diseases such as diabetes, is escalating amongst the population.

It is time to find a more holistic approach to solve the problem and the answer lies in the kitchen of every home. Nothing can match the food cooked at home, as one can make a healthy choice of the ingredients.

In view of the deteriorating health conditions of Malaysians, the Consumers Association of Penang calls on the Ministry of Education to introduce cooking classes in schools irrespective of gender. Students should be thought to cook in so that they will have the skills to feed their family healthy meals.

Those unaccustomed to cooking everyday initially find the task daunting. However, the following tips will help make cooking easier and more enjoyable-.

Plan meals – it is very important to plan out menus in advance. It may be just a few days or it can be a couple of weeks in advance. Know exactly what you are making for the next day. Keep your meals simple and use common (i.e. easily available) ingredients.

Make a master pantry list – once you develop simple meals with common ingredients you can stock up your pantry with these items. Keep a running list of these items and how much you have on hand. Try to buy these items when they are on sale but watch out for the expiry date..

Make a master grocery list – this takes time in the beginning but saves time later on. Make a list of the common weekly and monthly items you buy. When it is time to grocery shop  take note of the items that you need to buy.

Keep a price sheet – know what you are spending on food items. Using a small notebook jot down prices as you shop and then keeping a master list on the computer. This is a must for the budget! Use the freezer – When cooking a meal try making a double batch and freeze one for a stressful day when there are not enough time to cook.

This will prevent you from running out to fast food and restaurants. Keep the kitchen clean – It is so much more motivating to work in a clean kitchen rather than a cluttered one. Clean up as you work.

Letter to the Editor – July 25 2011

Stop harming our children with unhealthy canteen food

Children spend at least a third of the day in school and during this time, they eat at least one meal in the school canteen. This is especially so in most urban areas, where both parents work and are unable to find the time to pack lunches for their children.

Food is a vital growth and health factor in human life, and especially so for the growing child. It must not only be nutritious, but also healthy. This means we must ensure that meals served in schools are nutritious and healthy.

The eating habits of students are greatly influenced by the food available in the school environment. The food they eat contributes substantially to their nutrient intake and will to a large extent influence the development of their eating habits, growth patterns and energy levels.

Consuming nutritious food and adopting a healthy lifestyle will enable students to grow and develop to their optimum potential, leading to improved educational performance as well.

A healthy diet also plays a preventative role in relation to nutrition-related conditions and diseases such as overweight, obesity and dental disease, and, in later life, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus and a range of cancers.

So what are our children exposed to in their school canteens? Well, most school canteens still sell unhealthy food and snacks!

This is the admission of Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai. He was quoted by the press as saying on Aug 15: Checks show that many canteens are still selling fried food that do not meet the ministry’s guidelines on healthy food.

And he went on to say that a recent survey of 10,000 children aged between six and 12 revealed that 24% of them were either overweight or obese.

CAP is very distressed to hear this. We have, for many years now, been highlighting that unhealthy food and drinks are being sold in and around schools, but the problem continues to persist.

We must point out that the “Guidelines on Management of School Canteens” (Panduan Pengurusan Kantin Sekolah) clearly state that sweets, pickled food (jeruk) and snacks containing artificial flavouring and artificial colouring are not permitted.

The Guidelines also state that food containing excess sugar, salt and fat, instant noodles, iced confectioneries, artificially-coloured drinks, flavoured drinks, tea, coffee and fizzy drinks are not encouraged.  

In addition, the Guidelines also provide clear pointers for canteen food operators on how to prepare food with less sugar, salt and fat; and also the importance of including high-fibre foods in their servings. There is no excuse for the canteen operators to plead ignorance.

A study conducted in 2008 by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia showed that children are eating items such as fried chicken, fries, nuggets, chocolates, ice-cream, carbonated drinks, cream biscuits and jeruk in schools.

And now, more than two years later, the Health Minister tells us that nothing has changed. School canteen operators do as they please!

So who is responsible for this situation?  The federal authorities for not monitoring or taking action?  The school authorities for being indifferent?

We can guess: Just pass the blame to the children for creating the demand for such unhealthy food!

We call on both the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Education to act to enforce the Guidelines. Ensure that school canteens provide healthy and nutritious meals for the children and impose stiff penalties on stall operators who refuse to cooperate.

Provide healthy and nutritious meals will also be a means of educating the children about healthy food, and the food to avoid outside the school.

If need be, the schools should also offer space in the canteen free of charge to operators who provide healthy and nutritious meals.

Considering the huge sums of money the Government is spending elsewhere, it can easily subsidise the schools for the canteen costs, should this be necessary.

It is also very important that parents, teachers and students work together to support a wholesome approach to developing a culture where both primary school pupils and secondary school students actively choose nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle.

Letter to the Editor – 18 October 2010


Stay away from instant noodles to keep healthy

instant-noodleThe Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) calls on consumers to avoid eating instant noodles as it is harmful to health. Studies have shown that high sodium consumption is linked to a variety of diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke and kidney damage.

In 2004 Malaysians consumed 870 million packets of instant noodles but by 2008 it had increased to more than 1,210 million packets. This is an increase of nearly 40 percent during the period of 4 years.

Instant noodle is a highly processed food that lacks nutritive value. It is a junk food. Every single serving of instant noodle is high in carbohydrates, sodium and other food additives, but low on essential elements such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.


According to the Codex Standards (FAO standards) for instant noodles, acid regulators, flavour enhancers, thickeners, humectants, colours, stabilizers, anti-oxidants, emulsifiers, flour treatment agents, preservatives and anti-caking agents are allowed to use in the making of instant noodles.

24 of the 136 listed additives in the Codex Standards are sodium salts. And the use of sodium additives is the main reason why instant noodles are high in sodium. High-sodium foods can cause hypertension, heart disease, stroke, kidney damage and other health problems.

sodium-in-instant-noodlesTests conducted by CAP on 10 samples of instant noodles found three samples to contain sodium above 1,000 mg. The average amount of sodium found in the samples was 830 mg. According to the current US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of sodium for adults and children over 4 years old is 2,400 mg/day. Consumption of instant noodles can easily cause excessive sodium intake as sodium is commonly used in our other daily foods especially from processed and hawker foods.  

Another health concern is the reported leaching of dioxin and other hormone-like substances from the plastic container of the cup noodle. As hot water is added harmful substances could seep into the soup.

One of the major concerns with instant noodle is that it can produce oxidised fat and oil if it is not managed properly during the manufacturing process. This is of concern if the cooking oil is not maintained at the proper temperature or the oil is not changed as often as necessary.

Instant noodles are coated with wax to prevent the noodles from sticking together. This can be seen when hot water is added to the noodles. After some time the wax can be seen floating in the water.

The Codex Standards also allow the use of 10,000 mg/kg of the chemical propylene glycol, an anti-freeze ingredient as humectants (help to retain moisture to prevent noodles from drying) in instant noodles. Propylene glycol is readily absorbed and it accumulates in the heart, liver and kidneys causing abnormalities and damage. The chemical is also capable of weakening the immune system. 

Instant noodles and the flavouring soup base also contain high amounts of monosodium glutamate (MSG). It is a flavour  enhancer used by instant noodle makers to make their shrimp flavours ”shrimpier” and beef flavours “beefier”. MSG can trigger an allergic reaction in 1 to 2 % of the population. Individuals who are allergic to MSG can get burning sensations, chest and facial flushing or pain and headaches from it.

High sodium consumption is linked to stroke or kidney damage. In Malaysia, there are an estimated 13,000 kidney patients undergoing dialysis. Every year 2,500 people join the ranks of end-stage renal failure patients. Six new cases of stroke occur every hour in Malaysia.

Some of the chemicals found in instant noodles are also capable of causing cancer. For example, dioxin and plasticisers leached from the containers in the presence of hot water.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) ,at least 30 percent of all cancers could be prevented through simple measures such as adopting a healthy diet.  Instant noodles are definitely an unhealthy diet which consumers should avoid.

In view of its unhealthy nature, the Consumers Association of Penang calls on the Ministry of Health to launch a campaign to highlight the dangers of instant noodles, which is a popular food among Malaysians.

For the sake of their health consumers should opt for more wholesome food.

Read more about how sodium and MSG affect your health in the CAP Guides, How Much Salt Is Hidden In Your Foods and Is MSG Safe?