Can mala help you lose weight? 5 things to know about the fiery dish
Mad about mala? Just wait until you find out how much fat and sodium there is in it. And why do some folks get a tummy upset from it? The programme Talking Point takes your burning questions to experts.
SINGAPORE: It is one of the latest food crazes to hit our island.
From the hotpot to the stir-fried versions, mala fish skin and even mala chicken rice, it seems that Singaporeans cannot get enough of this flavour.
Over the years, the popularity of mala (“ma” for numbing and “la” for spicy) has grown, with stalls selling mala xiang guo (stir-fried mala) proliferating in hawker centres and coffee shops across Singapore.
And when Talking Point host Steven Chia asked on Instagram what everyday item the programme should investigate, the top response was mala.
Here are five things to know about what’s in the dish, whether it might actually be good for you and how to deal with your burning mouth (and belly) after eating it.
WATCH: Why does spicy food make us cry? Which drink is the best ‘antidote’? (7:35)
1. ARE THERE HEALTH BENEFITS?
While mala contains many ingredients (one chef’s sauce had more than 30 spices and ingredients, including star anise, cinnamon, aromatic ginger, cloves and fennel), the ones that give it its signature taste are Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilli.
Both are purported to have health benefits.
Sichuan peppercorns — which give the numbing effect — are dried berries, which are said to boost the immune system, help reduce body pains and increase one’s metabolism, among other benefits.
Dried chilli contains minerals like folate, potassium and thiamine, and is a good source of vitamins A, B and C. Capsaicin, the compound that makes chillies hot, is even said to help lead to weight loss.
But cardiologist Calvin Chin from the National Heart Centre Singapore sounded a cautionary note.
While chilli may help to boost metabolism, the weight lost would be “very modest”: About 1 kilogramme over three or four months of eating chilli every day, he reckoned.
“Once your tolerance of chilli builds up over time, the effects of losing weight from chilli … reduce over time as well,” he added.
As for Sichuan peppercorns, he said the health benefits are also “very modest” and require eating a “large amount” of an ingredient that “isn’t very palatable for a lot of people”.
More important, he noted, the oil and salt content in mala is “really unhealthy” and can increase the risk of heart disease.
2. WHAT THE TESTS SHOW
To find out just how unhealthy mala is, and whether the spice level makes a difference to the sodium and fat levels, Talking Point tested three top hotpot and stir-fried brands as recommended by food bloggers.
The results showed that 100 grammes of mala broth had, on average, 418 milligrammes of sodium, while stir-fried mala had 470mg — compared with 163mg of sodium per 100g of mutton biryani, 294mg in laksa and 337mg in roasted chicken rice.
Drinking more than that amount of broth — as one is wont to do for a hotpot meal — or adding ingredients like meat and processed food means adding to the sodium levels.
“You can easily hit about 1,000mg and sometimes more than 1,500mg of sodium,” said Wong Weng Wai, a lecturer from Temasek Polytechnic’s Centre for Applied Nutrition Services. By comparison, the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum daily sodium intake is 2,000mg.
The tests also found 3.8g of saturated fat in 100g of stir-fried mala on average and 4.9g in the oil layer of the hotpot, compared with saturated fat in mutton biryani (2.9g), laksa (3.3g) and roasted chicken rice (2.3g).
Wong noted that an adult should not exceed about 22g of saturated fats per day. “With all the ingredients (in the hotpot), easily you’ll get more than 20g,” he said.
The tests showed that prolonged heating of the soup can make it unhealthier, as the high-heat process can convert healthier unsaturated fats like polyunsaturated fat into trans-fatty acids and saturated fatty acids.
“They’ll produce other toxic chemicals as well as free radicals that’ll attack your body,” said Wong.
The spicier it is, the worse it gets too. Stir-fried mala with less spice contained 380mg of sodium and 3.4g of saturated fats per 100g, while the one with extra spice had 519mg of sodium and 6.3g of saturated fats.
“If you want (it) extra spicy, they’ll add more oil,” said Wong. “More oil means more fats.”
3. SO CAN I EAT MALA ‘HEALTHILY’?
According to dietitian Jacqueline Loh from Mount Alvernia Hospital, there are healthier ways to eat mala. She, for one, usually sees to it that the oil at the top of the broth is removed after her ingredients are cooked.
Sometimes the oil can fill three to four rice bowls, said Loh.
In terms of choosing ingredients, she said those that have been deep-fried beforehand, such as fried tofu skin and fried yam, would “absorb double the amount of oil”.
She also suggested blanching leafy vegetables like lettuce or spinach, instead of leaving them in the hotpot to cook fully and absorb the oil.
The same principles apply to stir-fried mala. And one way of reducing the sodium level is to ask for less paste and less oil to be used.
4. WHY DOES MALA MAKE ME CRY, AND CAN I ‘TRAIN’ TO TAKE THE HEAT?
Our eyes tear when capsaicin, that substance in chillies, binds to the receptors in our nose and tongue, said gastroenterologist and liver specialist Wang Yu Tien at Gleneagles Hospital.
Similarly, it binds to receptors in the stomach and intestine. And for those with sensitive stomachs, it triggers symptoms like nausea and diarrhoea.
But there is good news: Tolerance for spice can be increased, said Wang.
In the case of children, there is no ideal age when this training to take the spice should start. “It really depends on the individual tongue,” he said when interviewed for a Talking Point web extra.
“Some (children) are more game — then it’s okay to try it. But if they’re not ready, starting them too early may cause them to be quite averse to it.”
WATCH: The full episode — Spicy mala: What's really in your mala dish? (22.56)
5. SO HOW CAN I DEAL WITH THE BURNING SENSATION?
Some people may feel that drinking water might help, while others point to orange juice or milk. But drinking water is not helpful, said Wang, as capsaicin is not soluble in water.
“It’ll just make the person feel bloated and uncomfortable.”
Orange juice is not a likely remedy either. There is a clear distinction between drinks without milk and milk-based drinks, he noted. That is because milk contains a protein called casein, which can bind to capsaicin and wash it away.
He added that alcohol — the hard kind — is another option, as it can dissolve capsaicin.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.