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Use lower-sodium salt alternatives in cooking? F&B operators say it'll cost more

SINGAPORE — Consumers’ response to taste changes, as well as business costs in the midst of an uncertain economic climate, were the key concerns among several food-and-beverage (F&B) operators, after the Government’s latest call to shift towards using lower-sodium salt alternatives in food preparation.

Use lower-sodium salt alternatives in cooking? F&B operators say it'll cost more
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  • The Government is starting a drive to reduce sodium intake and bring down the prevalence of hypertension among the population
  • Using lower-sodium salt options in cooking is an extra cost to consider, F&B operators said
  • There is also the question of how feasible it is to change offerings on menus and get consumers to accept changes
  • However, most operators agreed that it is a step in the right direction health-wise

SINGAPORE — Consumers’ response to taste changes, as well as business costs in the midst of an uncertain economic climate, were the key concerns among several food-and-beverage (F&B) operators, after the Government’s latest call to shift towards using lower-sodium salt alternatives in food preparation.

However, eight industry players approached by TODAY — including hawker stall owners, restaurants, the catering services association and a multi-brand F&B holding company — were unanimous in their support for such a move to tackle the soaring prevalence of hypertension that is tied to high blood pressure.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) announced on Wednesday (Sept 28) its target to bring down sodium consumption among the population here by 15 per cent over five years. 

One key prong of its strategy is to make lower-sodium salt options more readily available in the market for consumers, while another area of focus is to nudge F&B operators to turn to these healthier — but generally costlier — options as well.

“Over the next five years, HPB aims to grow the market share of lower-sodium salt aggressively to replace at least half of the current salt market, with the focus on encouraging the food service to switch to lower-sodium salt,” it told TODAY on Wednesday.

Besides cost-related woes, some F&B operators were also concerned about the feasibility of adjusting the sodium content in their products without compromising taste, and whether customers will be receptive towards the changes.

YET ANOTHER COST TO TACKLE

For Madam Roziah Adon, who owns two hawker stalls in Bedok, switching to lower-sodium ingredients is yet one more cost that she would have to worry about, on top of manpower and rent.

She has not tried to buy low-sodium salt herself yet, but a cursory check on major supermarket websites found that regular salt sold at under 50 cents for a 500g pack. In contrast, a smaller, 350g pack of lower-sodium salt costs seven times as much at about S$3.50.

“Now with our profit margins shrinking, especially just as we emerged from the pandemic not too long ago, business owners are really stressed, with many giving up because they can’t cover the cost,” she said.

“Yes, offering healthy food is good, but to make yet another change, maybe now is not the best time.”

Mr S Mahenthiran, director at Gayatri Restaurant, agreed that cost is one of the major concerns.

He said that some food businesses try to offer both a regular menu and a “healthy” menu in an attempt to accommodate customers’ differing palettes and capture wider demand, but it might be burdensome for smaller operators.

“For example, not only do you have to buy your healthier canola or sunflower oil, but your other oils as well. And you have to buy lower-sodium salt and buy your regular salt,” he added.

On the other hand, Ms Anna Lim, co-founder of The Soup Spoon, said that salt forms a small part of the restaurant chain’s recipes and so, the cost difference “should not be so impactful”.

Similarly, Mr Jonathan Ong, who runs casual dining restaurant Daddy On Madras, said: “It’s still a cost that we have to absorb for our customers, so it’s a mild annoyance. Manpower and rent, now those are major annoyances.”

During a debate earlier this year on the financial year’s budget for the Ministry of Health (MOH), Ms Rahayu Mahzam, then-Parliamentary Secretary for Health, said: “We will increase support through the Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme to shift the food service sector towards using lower-sodium alternatives such as lower-sodium salt.”

The Healthier Ingredient Development Scheme, introduced in 2017, helps producers offset the production cost of healthier ingredients. This would then bring down the prices in the market.

HPB also offers a Healthier Dining Grant, which helps operators defray up to 80 per cent marketing costs to promote their healthier menu options, and a Healthier Dining Innovation Grant, which covers some costs related to developing healthier recipes.

However, the eligibility criteria stated on its website showed that the grants are open to operators with three or more outlets. TODAY has asked HPB for more clarification.

Mr Reuben Ang, secretary of the Association of Catering Professionals Singapore, said he hopes that over time, as interest in lower-sodium salts grows and producers increase their supply accordingly, costs would go down.

Even if you don’t use (the expensive) lower-sodium salt, and instead you add more of the other ingredients to make up for reducing salt and sauces, that adds to the costs yet again.
Madam Roziah Adon, who owns two hawker stalls in Bedok

Mr Bernard Tay, managing director of Korean sauce-coated fried chicken chain Jinjja Chicken, said that he imports the sauces from overseas suppliers and changing the ingredients in the sauces is largely out of his hands.

“It’s not like we are a huge market, so if we ask them to change their recipe to reduce the sodium level, they might not want to do it just for us,” he added.

“The only other way is to serve my chicken with less sauce, then the whole taste will change.”

Mdm Roziah, who has also been doing consultation work for 10 years to help other businesses make their menus healthier, said that it would be challenging to maintain a food’s taste while cutting down on sodium and yet not incur costs. 

“Even if you don’t use (the expensive) lower-sodium salt, and instead you add more of the other ingredients to make up for reducing salt and sauces, that adds to the costs yet again,” she said.

HOW WILL CONSUMERS RESPOND TO LESS SALT IN FOOD?

Whichever way that operators choose to go, consumers’ receptivity to either a change in taste or prices would be closely watched.

Mr Mahenthiran of Gayatri Restaurant, which offers healthier options and is listed as one of the caterer partners under HPB’s Healthier Dining Programme, said that it charges its clients more for the healthier options because “the ingredients used are usually pricier”.

Through the Healthier Dining Programme, launched in 2014, HPB partners F&B businesses to offer healthier options in their menus. About 3,000 operators are on board as of March, HPB's media factsheet stated.

Mr Mahenthiran observed that the proportion of consumers who would pick healthier options about six years ago was around every three in 10.

“But now, we have about 50:50,” he said.

Mr Ang from the Association of Catering Professionals Singapore said that there will be an “inevitable lag” between making these changes and customers' acceptance.

On the one hand, consumers will need to be convinced that it is in their interest to pay more for ingredients that are better for their health.

“And then there’s brown rice — even until today, there's a significant number of people who just don’t like to eat it. That makes it difficult for us to make a permanent change,” he said.

WHAT BUSINESSES NEED AND HOW TO ADAPT 

The details of the authorities’ strategy in getting F&B businesses to use lower-sodium condiments are not yet announced, but operators who spoke to TODAY generally agreed that grant support as well as public education efforts — the third prong of MOH’s overall strategy — are very important.

Mr Mahenthiran of Gayatri Restaurant said: “Subsidies will assist us with the initial cost increase and later (with increased acceptance), consumers will start paying for it.”

Mr Joshua Rene Jeyaraj of Commonwealth Capital, which invests in a portfolio of F&B brands such as Pasta Mania, Swissbake as well as Baker & Cook, suggested some ways for operators to ease their transition to healthier menu offerings.

“Brands can consider blending healthier ingredients with ingredients that customers are more accustomed to, rather than adopting a binary approach and making too stark a transition,” he said.

On their part, brands under Commonwealth Capital have also invested in “shelf-life extension technology” that reduces reliance on sodium as a preservative, he added.

Apart from their concerns, F&B operators agreed that cutting down sodium consumption is a good step in the right direction.

Mr Daren Oliveiro, co-founder of ButterNut and AngMohZiChar stalls located in Taman Jurong, said that despite the cost concerns, the Government should implement the changes “swiftly”.

“Yes, there are costs, but all these salt- and sugar-related issues are costing us more each year in terms of healthcare,” he said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAMUEL NG

Related topics

salt sodium HPB F&B food consumer taste Health

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