AsianScientist (April 8, 2022) – By Heidi Tran and Kamila Navarro – From sacred cattle in Hinduism to the respective “cooling” and “warming” properties of eggplant and ginger in traditional Chinese medicine, food is more than just a means of survival in Asia.
With its deep ties to Asian culture and identity, national cuisines have long been wielded as soft power by countries like Thailand and South Korea to promote their culinary traditions and boost their public image on the world stage.
Given its dizzying array of distinct flavors, Asian food culture has evolved over the years, reflecting the region’s rapid economic growth. Rising incomes, for example, have been accompanied by increased consumption of high-value foods like meat. But with animal agriculture recently embroiled in crises ranging from climate change to global pandemics, Asia’s huge appetite for meat – which is expected to grow by 78% over the next three decades – is proving unsustainable.
Due to rapid urbanization, countries that were once agriculturally self-sufficient and rich in fresh produce have seen an influx of high-fat, high-calorie processed foods. Active and pastoral lifestyles have given way to more sedentary behaviors, leading to an increase in non-communicable diseases like obesity and diabetes.
For example, China and India currently have the highest number of diet-related type 2 diabetes in the world, hence the need for an urgent review of regional dietary habits. Fortunately, Asia’s most innovative minds are answering the call to open new frontiers towards a healthier and more sustainable food future.
Spill the beans on asian food
Among the food wonders of the world, those of Asia are presented as among the healthiest. After all, the region is home to countries like India that have a long tradition of vegetarianism. Elsewhere, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and minimal use of dairy or oil, Vietnamese cuisine is said to be relatively low in calories, which comes as no surprise that obesity rates are at their lowest in the republic of Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, traditional Japanese cuisine has been credited for the country’s high number of centenarians compared to other countries. On the island of Okinawa, where about 68 out of every 100,000 people lived for up to a century and beyond, the diet is largely plant-based, with sweet potato, a staple carbohydrate, known to have a low glycemic load. Older Okinawans also practice a form of calorie restriction called hara hachi bunor only eating until you feel 80% full, which helps keep body mass indices low while increasing life expectancy.
As a result, 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 of the region’s famous dishes may include unhealthy cooking techniques.
A prevailing misconception is that Asian food contains less fat than other types of cuisine, revealed Professor Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, senior adviser at the Singapore Food and Biotechnology Innovation Institute (SIFBI) at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). interview with Asian science magazine.
“Part of this disparity between good and bad comes from the assumption that Western food is largely fatty and therefore unhealthy,” Henry said. “But if you look at the chemical analysis of many Asian foods that we eat, like the mixed rice dish biryani and flatbread Parathathey are also quite fat.
In 2020, Henry and his collaborators compared 25 foods representing Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisines from Singapore’s hawker centers and food courts with 29 popular Western-style fast food dishes. Not only did the team find that the two cuisines were comparable in energy content and total fat content, but they also found that Asian dishes contained significantly more saturated fat, salt and cholesterol than their Western counterparts.
A particularly glaring dish was char kway teow, a rice noodle dish enjoyed in Malaysia and Singapore. Stir-fried in lard, mixed with sweet gravy, and topped with Chinese sausage, the hawker staple contains 3,114 kilojoules, 29.18 grams of saturated fat, 234.24 milligrams of cholesterol, and 1,459 milligrams of sodium, making it a tasty treat to enjoy in moderation.
For comparison, a 10-inch pizza loaded with meats like pepperoni, ground beef, and sausage — plus topped with cheese — has just 737 kilojoules and 4.3 grams of saturated fat, along with 13.42 and 462 .99 milligrams of cholesterol and sodium respectively.
“Our findings underscore the need to re-examine the notion that Western-style fast food is the single bane of our poor health in Asia,” Henry and colleagues wrote in their study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adding that such information helps in the development of an alternative framework to improve the dietary health of people residing in the region.