SINGAPORE: Vending machine meals are catching on with their growing availability, and the 'No MSG added' or 'No preservatives' labels on some of these grab-and-go meals may appeal to the more health-conscious.
But a sample test of three vending machine meals has shown them to be higher in fat, salt and MSG content compared to their hawker-prepared counterparts. The food laboratory test was arranged by producers of the current affairs series Talking Point (watch the series here).
The chicken rice from Asian Food Box, the seafood hor fun from Chef-in-Box and the beef rendang with rice from Prima Taste were tested for salt, fat and MSG - all of which the Health Promotion Board (HPB) advises against having too much of.
The tests were also run on the same dishes bought from well-known hawker stalls.
Across all three dishes, the vending machine meals contained more salt and fat compared to the hawker version. The chicken rice and beef rendang with rice from the vending machines also contained more MSG than their counterparts.
Nutritionist Sheeba Majmudar said that these meals may contain a higher proportion of salt, fat and MSG compared to the hawker alternatives as they have to taste good, look good and stay stable for a longer period of time.
“We can’t really have it all, but I think what attracts people to it is the fact that it is sometimes labelled ‘No MSG, no preservatives’," she said.
TOO MUCH CAN BE HARMFUL
Based on the laboratory test results, the chicken rice vending machine version had 16.5 per cent more salt, 159 per cent more fats and 7.3 per cent more MSG, compared to the hawker variety.
In the seafood hor fun, there was 19.4 per cent more salt and 117.3 per cent more fats found in the vending machine version.
As for the beef rendang with rice, there was 42 per cent more salt in the vending machine variety, 23.6 per cent more fat and 58.9 per cent more MSG.
Ms Majmudar said that if one’s diet contains too much bad fats, it can harden and narrow the insides of our arteries, increasing the chances of a heart attack. The bad fats can also stay in our liver, increasing the chances of fatty liver.
“And when we consume too much MSG, our liver and kidneys will also have to work much harder to process this artificial toxin.
“High salt amounts will also put pressure on your kidneys, causing one to be dehydrated, feel tired and nauseous,” she added.
The three vending machine operators were approached with the findings, but the Ma2 Shop, operator of the Asian Food Box vending machine, said they were not ready to comment.
Prima Taste told Talking Point that no MSG is added to most of its food, but it might be naturally present in some of the ingredients used.
CUSTOMERS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT TASTE
JR Group CEO Jocelyn Chng – the operator behind Chef-In-Box which can be credited for making hot vending machine meals popular here – said that they are always very mindful of what they put into the bento boxes.
“We know that we are even going to offer it to our children at home, so we are very close to the standards set by the HPB,” she said.
She admitted that in the case of certain bento boxes, they are unable to fulfil the HPB ‘Healthier Choice’ logo guidelines because of certain ingredients such as the oil they use for chicken rice, to achieve the flavour.
The HPB ‘Healthier Choice’ logo indicates if the dish is less than 500 calories per serving and has a limited serving of trans fat, saturated fats and sodium.
It really is not easy for us to strike a balance. Actually the customers are not really receptive to whether it is a healthier choice or not. What they really look for is the taste of the product,
said Ms Chng. She also noted that MSG isn't added to Chef-In-Box meals, but it might be naturally occurring in some of the ingredients such as fish cake.
HEALTHY VENDING MACHINE MEALS POSSIBLE
Vending machine meals seem set to stay. There are some 200 vending machines serving hot dishes across the island today, with about 10 more vending machine cafes slated to open over the next year.
Earlier this week, VendMart, touted as Singapore’s largest vending machine cluster, also started offering instant meals such as sandwiches and even chilli crab at Giant’s hypermarket stores in IMM Jurong and Tampines.
Ms Gladys Wong, the chief dietitian at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital who is involved in the research of food technology, believes it is possible to have healthier vending machine meals in the future.
Traditionally, one needs sodium or other preservatives to extend the shelf life of pre-chilled or frozen food. But it is possible to exploit technology to reduce the sodium, sugar and fat content, while still providing the same kind of food that one can enjoy.
“There’s potential, and a lot of playground for the food industry to work on, to make us not just a smart nation but also a healthy nation,” she said.
Watch the Talking Point series online here, and catch new episodes every Thursday, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.