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Are Malaysians Getting High On Sugar?

What is this weakness with sugar for Malaysians anyway? According to the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism (MDTCC) Ministry, we exceeded the 50gm daily limit set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This has placed us as the 8th largest sugar consumers in the world and a worrying trend of increasing obesity and diabetes levels among our youths.

That’s not all, according to research, Malaysia’s sugar demand is expected to grow by three per cent a year to over 1.9 million tonnes by 2020 despite the higher prices. So where will this lead the sweet-tooth Malaysians to? Natural Health speaks to Hong Ya Chee, a nutrition and wellness consultant on our sugar addiction.

Do Malaysians in general consume more sugar than they need?

Malaysia is a net sugar importing country. In 1995, imports of raw sugar reached a record 1.0 million tons, while exports were 101,000 tones. Increasing quantities of sugar have had to be imported to meet rising demand and compensate for the stagnant domestic production. For example, imports for the first 5 years of the 1990s averaged 885,000 tons per year, compared with 494,000 tones for the first-half of the 1980s, a 79 percent increase. In recent years, sugar and corn have been Malaysia’s largest agricultural imports, with annual sugar imports valued at between US$200 to US$300 million.

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) is concerned that sugar consumption among Malaysians is increasing at an alarming rate. Early in 2009, Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad, the former Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs announced that Malaysia is the 8th highest sugar users in the world. In the 1970s, Malaysians consumed about 17 teaspoons of sugar a day. This figure went up to about 21 teaspoons a day in the 1980s. By the 1990s Malaysians were consuming an average of 24 teaspoons of sugar per day but now the figure has jumped to 26 teaspoons.

Most people find it hard to believe or accept that they can be consuming an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day. That is because we may be thinking only of the ‘visible’ white sugar we see and buy for use at home. However, an increasing amount of sugar consumed by the public is in industrially-prepared drinks and food. Ice cream, chocolates, sweetened condensed milk, and soft drinks are some of the items that have created new demand for sugar. Some soft drinks contain an average of at least 7 teaspoons of sugar per can. CAP surveys noted a number of the commercial drinks and food contained over 10 teaspoons of sugar in just one serving. Consumers are often unaware of how much sugar they consume in total in a day. So, yes, Malaysians in general consume more sugar than they need.

Why do we have this fixation on sweet drinks like teh tarik?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Malaysia Diet Guidelines both recommend that sugar intake a day should not exceed 50g or 10 teaspoons. Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) president S.M. Mohamed Idris said one glass of Malaysia’s ‘national drink’ or teh tarik contained about 6 teaspoons of sugar, if Malaysians consume two glasses of teh tarik, they already consumed 12 teaspoons of sugar in a day which exceeded the sugar intake recommendation. Also, according to the Consumers Association of Penang again, Malaysians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day!

In 2010, in a meeting with the Ministry of Health’s requirement to reduce the amount of sugar in its products, F&N Dairies (M) Sdn Bhd launched a “Kurang Manis” campaign in February 2010 to discourage the high daily sugar consumption of average Malaysians. F&N Dairies (M) Sdn. Bhd. printed 10,000 pieces of the ‘‘Kurang Manis’’ posters for Mamak restaurants nationwide to encourage Mamak restaurant patrons to have their regular cups of teh tarik to be made “Lite” or “Kurang Manis” by replacing part of the sweetened condensed milk in tea with evaporated milk which is not sweetened, thus scrapping off much of the sugar.

We have the fixation on sweet drinks like ‘the tarik’ because some studies have shown sugar to be an addictive substance, just as cocaine, heroin, and can be just as habit-forming as these drugs. However, many Malaysians are unaware that too much sugar in our diet can lead to a myriad of health problems such as Diabetes, Overweight/Obesity, High blood pressure/stroke (Cardiovascular Disease), Cancer, Tooth Decay, and many more. Let’s us look at how the high intake of sugar can lead to these diseases.


Dr B. S. Bains, who is president of the Physiotherapy Association of Malaysia and chief executive officer of the Bains chain of physiotherapy clinics, said the high sugar content of many of the favourite food and drinks consumed by Malaysians was a major cause of diabetes. Besides this, according to the International Diabetes Institute, Malaysia has the 4th highest number of diabetics in Asia. From 800,000 recorded diabetics in 2007, the number is expected to reach 1.3 million in 2010.


High intake of sugar has been identified as one of the factors behind the increase in incidence of overweight and obesity in this country. In 1996, only 16% were overweight and 4% obese. The 2006 National Health and Morbidity Survey revealed that 29.1% of adults in Malaysia were overweight and 14% obese.

High blood pressure/stroke (Cardiovascular Disease)

The World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that excessive sugar intake brings Cardiovascular Disease. In 1985, there were 58,961 heart patients in the country. In 1996, the number grew to 95,454. Each year, more than 8,000 Malaysians die of heart diseases.


Based on official figures, there was an almost 40% increase in cancer rates in the country from 1990 to 1996. In 1996 alone, 1,335 people died and 11,655 were admitted in Government Hospitals throughout the country. Cancer is now the second biggest killer in the country, after road accidents.

Tooth Decay

It afflicts nearly everyone in the country (87% of Malaysian children and 95% of adults suffer from it). Only 7.2% of Malaysian adults are free from gum (periodontal) diseases.

What are the differences between different types of sugars?

Refined sugar

This is the most common sugar you will see in stores. The sugar is still derived from sugar canes or sugar beets, which won’t change. The refined sugar is achieved by removing the sucrose from the plant before it is cleaned and the impurities are removed from the product. Things like mold, soil, bacteria, stalk fibres, and wax can all be left over until this point.

Carbon dioxide or phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide are then used to bleach the product and get it to the lusterous white that we are accustomed to. In order to be considered table sugar, it has to be processed one more time. It is filtered in a liquid state through “beef bone char”. From beginning to end, the product has changed considerably. The sugar that was initially brown in colour is now white. Finally, many people refer to refined sugar as ‘empty calories’, as there is absolutely no nutritional value to the product.

Refined sugar removes sugar cane’s natural minerals and nutrients, including phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. It is simply junk food or has empty calories. The refined sugar is sold as granulated white sugar. The granulated white sugar is dried refined sugar. Refined sugar is white in colour – unless molasses is added to make it into brown sugar, which has a fine crystalline consistency and few undertones of flavour.

Refined sugar dissolves more quickly than unrefined sugar. Besides this, refined sugar has a longer shelf life than unrefined sugar.

Unrefined Sugar

Unrefined sugar is the one that is made from the juice of the sugar cane plant and contains a trace of minerals and nutrients, such as phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. Unrefined sugar has a minimal 11 calories per teaspoon.

  • Unrefined sugar is golden in colour, can vary in texture from course to powdery and has a warmer flavour with hints of molasses.
  • Unrefined sugar has a shorter shelf life than refined sugar because it still contains some impurities that can only be removed during heavy processing.
  • Unrefined sugar is not the same as Brown sugar. Brown sugar is basically sucrose sugar which has added molasses to it.

Brown Sugar

Our common brown sugar goes through the exact same process as refined sugar, but along the way, molasses is added to give it the brown colour and a little additional sweetness. The amount of molasses determines whether the sugar is light brown sugar or dark brown sugar – consisting of 3.5% and 6.5% molasses respectively.

Brown sugar is crystalline sucrose combined with a small amount of molasses, which is responsible for its characteristic brown colour and rich flavour. Depending on the variety of brown sugar, molasses is either added back to refined white sugar or left intact with the sugar crystals during the refining process.

Brown sugar is prized for its deep, rich flavour and color. Because molasses is hydroscopic, brown sugar and the baked goods made with it retain moisture well. Brown sugar also contains a slightly higher mineral content than regular refined white sugar due to the presence of molasses. There are 11 calories in 1 teaspoon unpacked of brown sugar.

Common uses for brown sugar include sweetening baked goods, beverages, sauces, and marinades. Some varieties of natural brown sugar are also used to make alcoholic beverages like rum.

Brown sugar must be kept in an air-tight container in order to retain its moisture content. Brown sugar exposed to air may harden as the moisture slowly evaporates. Hardened brown sugar can be softened by adding a slice of bread or an apple wedge to the container and sealing it tightly. Within a few hours, the molasses will have absorbed some of the moisture present in the bread or apple and the sugar will be soft again.


Nectar itself is composed mainly of sucrose and water. Bees add enzymes that create additional chemical compounds, inverting the sucrose into fructose and glucose, and then evaporate the water so that the resulting product will resist spoiling. Pure sucrose, or table sugar, is highly processed, while honey has only one processing step. The honey is heated to prevent crystallisation and yeast fermentation from happening during storage. This has implications on the environment and on people who believe that minimally processed foods are healthier.

Honey is a source of carbohydrates, containing 80% natural sugar – mostly fructose and glucose. Due to the high level of fructose, honey is sweeter than table sugar. Honey actually contains the same basic sugar units as table sugar. Both contain glucose and fructose. Granulated table sugar, or sucrose, has glucose and fructose hooked together, whereas in honey, fructose and glucose remain in individual units. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, which is one of the reasons fructose is used in so many food products today. However, fructose does not convert to energy as efficiently as glucose. As a result, processed foods containing granulated sugar high in fructose convert to fat stores more easily than honey.

There are 60 calories in honey and 18% water. The less water content the honey has, the better the quality of honey.

The vitamins present in honey are B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and certain amino acids. The minerals found in honey include calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc.

Some nutrition experts say honey, unlike table sugar, contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals and that honey can aid in digestion. Researchers are currently looking into antioxidant levels of honey to see if they also can improve one’s health.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame has zero calories but research has shown that its craving effect on the body is just like sugar, meaning you want more of the sweet stuff. But why do people drink Coke Zero, for example, like they are doing something good for their health?

People, especially obese and diabetic people like to drink Coke Zero or Diet Soda because they treat this as ‘guilt-free’ drinks!

A study by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, presented at a recent meeting of the American Diabetes Association, has added to growing research that diet soda is not a ‘guilt-free’ treat at all. Instead, after following 474 diet soda drinkers for nearly 10 years, they found that their waists grew 70 percent more than the waists of non-diet soda drinkers. Further, those who drank two or more diet sodas a day had a 500 percent greater increase in waist size!

The waist size is not only a matter of aesthetics, but also a powerful indicator of a build-up of visceral fat, a dangerous type of fat around your internal organs that is strongly linked with Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease. Your waist size is a far more accurate predictor of your heart risks than even your body mass index (BMI).

Besides this, many people are opting for Diet Soda because they believe it is healthier than regular soda, and actually they are doing themselves a great disservice. Regular soda is by no means a healthy choice either, but please don’t fall into the trap of believing that diet soda is ‘healthy’ just because it’s calorie-free. The researcher found that your risk of obesity increases by 41 percent for each can of diet soda you drink in a day.

Substances like Aspartame may have zero calories, but your body isn’t fooled. When it gets a ‘sweet’ taste, it expects calories to follow, and when this doesn’t occur it leads to distortions in your biochemistry that may actually lead to weight gain.

As far as ‘sweetness satisfaction’ in your brain is concerned, it can tell the difference between a real sugar and an artificial one, even if your conscious mind cannot. Artificial sweeteners tend to trigger more communication in the brain’s pleasure center, yet at the same time provide less actual satisfaction. So when you consume artificial sweeteners, your body craves more, as well as real sugar, because your brain is not satisfied at a cellular level by the sugar imposter. There is even research suggesting that artificial sweetener use may ruin your body’s ability to control calories, thus boosting your inclination to overindulge.

How do we make good food choices so we eat less sugar?

a) Cut down on sugary soft drinks. Sodas and most sweetened carbonated drinks are loaded with sugar and calories. Diet colas are no better as artificial sweeteners can do more harm than good.

b) Avoid sweetened breakfast cereals. One serving of frosted flakes contains 14g of sugar. Choose oatmeal, natural yoghurt or smoothies sweetened with fresh fruit or frozen berries.

c) Choose whole grains. Carbohydrates turn into sugar in your body. Try to avoid white bread and refined white flour and instead go for brown rice, brown pasta and whole grain bread.

d) Eat food without added sugars. Processed food and baked goods are the biggest culprits for containing a lot of added sugars. Eat more salads, fruits and vegetables and season your food with more herbs and spices instead.

e) Use fresh fruit instead of canned fruits.

f) Drink plain water, low calorie or sugar free drinks.

g) Spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg can enhance the natural flavor without added sugar.

h) Cut down on processed and packaged foods. Salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, soups and even pizza crusts contain sugar. If you make your own soup, you will unlikely be adding a cup of sugar to the stew pot; however this is exactly what manufacturers do. Try to purchase groceries with the least amount of packaging as possible.

i) Go black and never go back. Resolve to drink your coffee and tea without sugar and milk; this small change of mind can save you several sweet teaspoons every single day, and you will most likely find that you do not miss it.

j) Do not skip meals. This can lower your blood sugar levels, which cause you to crave sugar for a quick fix. This also can lead to increased health risks for hypoglycemia and diabetes.

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