Keeping an eye on fast foods

The Health Ministry is enforcing guidelines for the advertising of fast foods to children and nutrition labeling.

Nutrition plays a key role in the health of individuals. The prevalence of diseases linked to inappropriate dietary pattern has been on the rise. These diet-related diseases include obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer.

The authorities have always taken a serious view of the importance of healthy nutrition. For decades, comprehensive nutrition intervention programmes have been implemented to combat these diseases.

The consumption of fast foods is the centre of a new set of guidelines recently introduced by the Ministry of Health (MOH). There are two parts to these Guidelines on fast foods: (a) advertising to children; and (b) labelling of nutrient content.

I would like to highlight these guidelines to all stakeholders to help promote their effective implementation. This would include fast food restaurants, the authorities, relevant health professionals and last, but not least, the consumers.

The following points have been extracted from the document distributed during the launch of these guidelines on December 10, 2007, after the 6th meeting of the National Food Safety and Nutrition Council, Ministry of Health Malaysia.

Defining fast foods

There is probably no universally accepted definition for the term “fast foods”. Used loosely and in a wide sense, it can be taken to mean meals that are served on demand and made available in a short time.

This would include the franchised western-type fast foods as well as local hawker foods.

For the purposes of the proposed guidelines, MOH has defined “fast foods” as “foods that are prepared in large quantities, following standardised procedures and served rapidly in restaurants commonly known as fast food restaurants, which usually advertise their services through the electronic and print media”.

Why the need to regulate advertising of fast foods

The excessive consumption of fast foods has become recognised as one of the risk factors associated with the problem of obesity. Fast foods are said to be commonly high in fat, sugar and salt and low in complex carbohydrates.

Fast food restaurants have spread rapidly throughout the country, even into small towns. This rapid increase in popularity is probably due to the aggressive promotion of these foods by the industry, including through advertising.

The authorities are particularly concerned with advertisements targeted towards children, who are unable to appropriately sieve through food and nutrition messages.

The increasing prevalence of obesity among children is also a main reason for this focus on this vulnerable group. The prevalence of overweight and obesity, reported to be 1% in the 1990s, rose to 6% in 1997 among children 13-17 years.

In a study of primary school-age children in Kuala Lumpur in 2000, I found a prevalence of 8%. There is therefore a need to pay particular attention to this vulnerable group.

Advertising is one of the most popular means used by the food industry to promote their products. Information channelled through the media on various food products, including innovative food items, special offers and gimmicks have undoubtedly influenced food consumption pattern over the decades.

It is felt that the association between television and the prevalence of obesity among children is linked to the food advertisements. It is recognised that television is an extremely influential medium for children. There is a need to pay particular attention to this medium.

A tighter control of fast foods is deemed necessary because these foods are advertised aggressively over various media, as compared to other foods, eg local hawker dishes. The fast food industry is also a huge industry. The most popular brands are multinational enterprises. These guidelines on fast foods are only the beginning of a more long-term programme that will provide similar control for other food items.

This initial control on television may be extended to advertisements over the radio and also the print media. These guidelines now enforced are said to be similar to actions taken by several European countries to control fast food advertisements.

This article was first published in The Star on 17. February 2008

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