Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) is concerned that diabetes has reached very alarming proportions in the country. Almost 10%, or 2.6 million, of our population are believed to be suffering from Type 2 diabetes. The number of children with diabetes is on the rise with 1,305 cases reported in 2004, compared with 837 in 1999.
The figures on diabetic cases are just the official reported cases. It is almost certain that there are more cases going unreported or worse still, undetected.
Diabetes Type 2 is strongly linked to high sugar consumption and obesity.
In 1998 when CAP re-launched its Anti-Sugar campaigns which we had previously been conducting for over 10 years, we had a discussion with the Health Minister and were informed that meetings were being held with the manufacturers of sweet food and drinks, and sugar contents would be reduced. Unfortunately, nothing came of it.
The former Health Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek had taken up this issue and asked carbonated drinks manufacturers to reduce the sugar content, in their products.
In view of our country’s alarming diabetic rates, which are only expected to worsen over the coming years, much more needs to be done — with greater urgency.
Firm action needs to be taken against the numerous sweets and confectionaries that have flooded the Malaysian market. These products that are being marketed to children are not conducive to health.
They contain basically nothing more than sugar, colouring and other additives which are not even labeled on the packaging. Children receive no nutritional benefit from consuming these products. Some of these items are from China, where food safety standards have been questioned recently.
Sugary soft drinks, either carbonated or non-carbonated, used to be more of a luxury in the past and they were consumed as a treat. Parents would often insist that one bottle of drink be shared among the siblings, thus avoiding over-indulgence.
Nowadays, these drinks are sold in abundance, and vending machines are found at many locations, including airports, hospitals and schools. It is becoming increasingly common to see these drinks being offered in “jumbo” portions.
Among others, CAP urges the Health Ministry, working together with other related ministries, to take the following actions:
• Require manufacturers to amend their labels to clearly depict the amount of sugar in their food. To ensure that this information is understood by consumers, the sugar content could be shown graphically in terms of the number of teaspoons of sugar. (One teaspoon is equivalent to 5 g).
• Institute “traffic light” labeling to further enhance consumer awareness. This scheme has been shown to be effective in enabling consumers to assess the significance of nutrient levels within a particular product, and also allows for comparison between products. This traffic light system could provide information not only on the level of sugar in food products, but also other key ingredients of concern such as saturated fats, trans fats and salt. Under this scheme, red, orange and green colour coding would indicate whether the levels of these ingredients of concern are high, medium or low. The presence of the red, orange or green signals on food packaging would serve as an instant notice for consumers — even children or those with limited nutritional knowledge or numerical skills would easily be able to comprehend these signals. It would also act as a prompt for manufacturers to reformulate healthier versions of their products.
• Remove vending machines dispensing junk food and sugary drinks from schools and hospitals.
• Halt the advertisement of highly-sugared and other junk food and drinks during children’s television viewing hours. A number of countries, such as Norway, Australia and Sweden, have already taken action in this area. Children need special protection against advertisements as they are susceptible to media pressure and are incapable of making informed choices.
• Encourage children to avoid sweet drinks in school by providing drinking water in water dispensers around school premises. Sweet drinks should not be sold in school canteens so that children learn to select water as a first-choice drink.
• Ban the sale of junk food, which includes products with high sugar content, in school canteens.
• Ban food hawking within a fixed perimeter around schools so that schoolchildren are not tempted to purchase and consume unhealthy foods.
• Require that supermarkets control the easy availability of sweets and other unhealthy foods at check-out counters where customers are stationary for a relatively long period. There is added temptation for impulse buying at this time, especially when pestered by children.
Parents, in turn, must play their role in ensuring that highly-sugared products and sweets are not stocked in their homes.
Overall, an environment that is conducive for individuals to make healthy lifestyle choices should be created. This is especially critical when it comes to the younger generation.
If no drastic steps are taken to halt the deadly diabetes trend, we will simply be churning out the next generation of diabetics and as each successive World Diabetes Day comes around, we will only be celebrating worsening diabetic statistics.
Read more about how diabetes and more than 60 other diseases are linked to sugar in the CAP Guide, How Sugar Destroys Your Health