A Taste For Change

Asia boasts some of the world’s best dishes, but its relationship with food goes beyond taste. Here’s how researchers are building a healthy and sustainable food future, while preserving the region’s unique cultural connections to diet.

AsianScientist (Apr. 8, 2022)  – By Heidi Tran and Kamila Navarro –From the sacred cattle in Hinduism to the respective ‘cooling’ and ‘heating’ properties of eggplant and ginger in traditional Chinese medicine, food is more than just a means for survival in Asia.

With its deep links to Asian culture and identity, national cuisines have long been exercised as a soft power by countries like Thailand and South Korea to promote their culinary traditions and boost their public image on the world stage.

Considering its dizzying array of distinct flavors, Asia’s culinary culture has evolved through the years, mirroring the region’s fast economic growth. Rising incomes, for instance, have paralleled the increased consumption of high-value foods like meat. But with animal agriculture recently implicated in crises from climate change to global pandemics, Asia’s enormous appetite for meat—expected to grow by 78 percent in the next three decades—is proving unsustainable.

Due to rapid urbanization, countries that were once agriculturally self-sufficient and flush with fresh produce have seen an influx in high-fat, high-calorie processed foods. Active, pastoral lifestyles have given way to more sedentary behaviors, driving up non-communicable diseases like obesity and diabetes.

For instance, China and India currently have the highest numbers of diet-related type 2 diabetes in the world, prompting the need for an urgent review of regional food habits. Thankfully, Asia’s most innovative minds are heeding the call to lead new frontiers toward a healthier and more sustainable food future.

Spilling the beans on Asian cuisine

Among the globe’s food wonders, those in Asia are touted as some of the healthiest. After all, the region is home to countries like India that have a long tradition of vegetarianism. Elsewhere, with its focus on fresh ingredients and minimal use of dairy or oil, Vietnamese cuisine is said to be relatively low in calories, making it no surprise that obesity rates are at their lowest in the Southeast Asian republic.

Meanwhile, traditional Japanese cuisine has been credited for the nation’s high numbers of centenarians compared to other countries. On the island of Okinawa, where around 68 people out of every 100,000 have lived to a century and beyond, the diet is largely plant-based— with the staple carbohydrate sweet potato known to have a low glycemic load. Older Okinawans also engage in a form of caloric restriction called hara hachi bun, or eating only until one feels 80 percent full, helping keep body mass indices low while reportedly increasing life expectancy.

Accordingly, Asian cuisines are perceived to be healthier than some of their Western counterparts. But despite the flattering stereotype, such claims are an oversimplification of Asian diets, as many famous dishes across the region can include unhealthy cooking techniques.

One prevailing misconception is that Asian food contains less fat than other types of cuisine, revealed Professor Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, senior advisor of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine.

“Part of this disparity between what’s good and bad comes from the presumption that Western food is largely fatty—and therefore unhealthy,” Henry said. “But if you look at the chemical analysis of many of the Asian foods we consume, like the mixed rice dish biryani and flatbread paratha, they are also quite fatty.”

In 2020, Henry and collaborators compared 25 foods representing Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisines from hawker centers and food courts in Singapore with 29 popular Western-style fast food dishes. Not only did the team find that the two cuisines have comparable energy and total fat content, but they also discovered that the Asian dishes packed significantly more saturated fat, salt and cholesterol than their Western counterparts.

One especially egregious dish was char kway teow, a rice noodle dish that is loved in Malaysia and Singapore. Stir-fried in lard, mixed with sweet sauce and topped with Chinese sausage, the hawker staple packs in 3,114 kilojoules, 29.18 grams of saturated fat, 234.24 milligrams of cholesterol and 1,459 milligrams of sodium—making it a savory treat best enjoyed in moderation.

For comparison, a 10-inch pizza laden with meats like pepperoni, minced beef and sausages—plus topped up with cheese—has only 737 kilojoules and 4.3 grams of saturated fat, as well as 13.42 and 462.99 milligrams of cholesterol and sodium respectively.

“Our results highlight the need to reexamine the notion that Western-styled fast food alone is the bane of our ill health in Asia,” wrote Henry and his colleagues in their study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adding that such insights will aid in crafting an alternative framework for improving the dietary health of people residing in the region.

Heidi has a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Sydney, Australia. She is now a science editor and writer, where she enjoys combining her proclivity for science and prose.

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