The sugar debate: Bouquets and brickbats over ‘kurang manis’ move

On January 13, Deputy Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said the ministry hoped the tax on soft drinks will change people’s habit of consuming sweet beverages. — Picture by Azneal Ishak
On January 13, Deputy Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said the ministry hoped the tax on soft drinks will change people’s habit of consuming sweet beverages. — Picture by Azneal Ishak

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 22 — Reducing sugar content in drinks should not be the responsibility of eateries alone, business owners have said.

While they agree with the Health Ministry’s (MoH) call for restaurants to voluntarily reduce the sugar content of their drinks once the soda tax comes into effect on April 1, some eatery owners feel that there should have been a proper public campaign to create awareness of the issue first.

Award-winning chef and food truck operator Kenneth Sim told Malay Mail that the ministry should first embark on an education campaign on the effects of sugar consumption.

On his part, Sim said that he serves canned and cordial drinks when needed, adding that reducing sugar content would help him lower his business cost.

“As for the price increase of canned drinks, it will be the customers who will have to bear the cost. We will continue to serve them if the need arises. I feel that a good way to make Malaysians reduce their sugar intake is through education,” said Sim, who has worked in the UK, Switzerland and Australia.

A Shah Alam restaurant supervisor, who only wanted to be known as Muhd Hanif, said that most of his customers have already been asking for drinks with less sugar.

“Since we make our drinks from scratch, it’s easy to lower the sugar content. I like the ministry’s initiative. I feel we should make the drinks with less sugar and if the customers want it sweeter, we can always add sugar or condensed milk depending on the drink. We don’t sell soft drinks or soda here, so the price hike won’t affect us,” he said.

Indian Muslim Restaurant Operators Association head Ayub Khan, however, was rather sceptical about the ministry’s announcement, which he claimed was unfairly targeting mamak restaurants, when sweet beverages are also served at other types of eateries.

Though he welcomed the move to help Malaysians live a healthier lifestyle, like Sim, he too felt that the initiative would be better if it started with an awareness of sugar consumption in schools, especially from school canteens.

“I saw the deputy health minister’s statement. His statement is good. He’s doing good for the people and I am happy. But it is not right to accuse only a selected group of restaurateurs of this. Why? Is the sugar content only high in carbonated drinks sold specifically in mamak restaurants?

“They should have started from the education level first. Teach about sugar consumption,” he added.

Some businesses also feel trapped between the need to make a profit, abide by the government’s call and catering to their customers’ demands.

“I agree with the ministry’s initiative. We make our drinks from pre-made packets like the 3-in-1 pre-mix types. So the sugar in these packs can be high. If the customers do want to reduce sugar, and the majority of them ask us to, it’s not difficult. All we need to do is add more water to the mix.

“My concerns are what do the people want? On a Friday, after prayers, sometimes you want that sugar fix. If ours is less sweet than other stalls, will I lose business? Only time will tell. As for now, I’m all for reducing sugar content. It could be a cost-saver as well as a lifesaver,” a roadside stall operator opposite the Dang Wangi police station who only wished to be addressed as Abdul Manaf told Malay Mail.

Sooria Vilashini Nookiah, who owns a restaurant in Maxwell Road in Ipoh, Perak, said the MoH has her full support.

Sooria said her restaurant had already swapped regular sugar with palm sugar, which is unrefined and a proven healthier alternative.

“It’s a common substitute to white and brown sugar. Most of our customers are health-conscious so we already serve less sugar in our drinks. I like the ministry’s initiative to reduce sugar levels. I have always been concerned about our customers’ health and this initiative will encourage them to be healthier,” she said.

On January 13, Deputy Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said the ministry hoped the tax on soft drinks will change people’s habit of consuming sweet beverages.

He said high-sugar content contributes to the problem of obesity, diabetes and other chronic non-communicable diseases which is a big problem in Malaysia.

Lee added that Malaysia tops the obesity scale in South-east Asia and also ranks high for diabetes and hypertension.

Dr Lee said by introducing the soda tax, beverage companies would likely produce drinks that contain less sugar.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng had during the tabling of Budget 2019 said that a 40 sen tax per litre will be imposed on soft drinks with more than five grams of sugar or sugar-based sweetener per 100ml, starting April 1.

Related Articles