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Healthier food and snacks to choose in 2024

Written by World Events

Healthy eating has been affected by years of inflation. The rising cost of living has forced many to be more frugal, which has meant cutting back on grocery bills and shopping for cheaper and usually less healthy.

Yet despite these limitations, most people have welcomed 2024 promise to themselves to eat healthier. ThaiiPBS World asked nutrition and food biotechnology expert Assoc Prof Chalat Santivarangkna, director of the Institute of Nutrition at Mahidol University, what he thinks we will be eating, drinking and snacking on the coming year.

The following are his predictions. director, the Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University

Less is more: meat products

Whatever diet you choose – vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian – plant-based eating won’t fade away any time soon. Plant-based substitutes gained popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven by health concerns and disruptions in the meat supply chain.

“The pandemic changed so many aspects of our lives including our eating habits. Many people tried to follow a healthier diet because of the health crisis. Now, older adults and those living with chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and high levels of fat in their blood are more careful about what they eat. Lots of people have turned to a healthy plant-based diet. In addition, the greater concern about climate change has pushed many to adopt more environment-friendly behaviours including switching from  a meat-heavy diet to plant-based food.”

But educated consumers, he notes, may be pickier about what they choose.

“This year, I believe people will be more focused on eating nutrient-dense, filling whole food with minimum processing rather than meat substitutes that mimic the taste and texture of meat and which are usually ultra-processed foods,” Chalat said.

Indeed, there are growing concerns about plant-based meat alternatives that often contain more sodium than animal meats, with many also laced with added sugars, artificial colouring and controversial additives.

Price can also play a role. Plant-based meats often come with hefty price tags.

Tofu is a recommended meat substitute, considered a healthy processed food.

Chalat suggests vegan protein sources like tofu, beans, pulses and tempeh instead of meat substitutes. “Tofu and tempeh are minimally processed, so they should be considered healthy processed food. They are also affordable and retain most of their nutrients.  And you can buy them in bulk, which helps save on costs,” he said.

No added sugar

2024 will be another great year for manufacturers of functional and healthy beverages as people shun sugars.

Chalat forecasts that carbonated drinks with less or no sugar and zero calories, already popular with the younger generation and those trying to lose weight, will continue their upward trend.

“Consumers are now spoiled for choice. Sugar-free drinks are not restricted to the signature diet coke,” he said.

Cutting down on snacks can help people lose weight and reduce their grocery bills.

Beverage companies are rolling out products with less sugar and calories in the wake of the sugar tax hike in 2023. Among the bestsellers are lemon-lime soda with minimum sugar, orange soda with no sugar, and a lemon & lime flavoured carbonated soft drink that claims to be low in calories and free of sugar and caffeine but rich in fibre.

Healthier snacking

With rising awareness about the importance of health, people are conscious of the need to limit sugar and reduce their fat and salt intake. They are swapping regular potato chips, cookies and cakes for veggie chips or sticks and freeze-dried fruits.

“More people are seeking snacks with high fibre or protein content and that claim to be low in sugar, fat, cholesterol and sodium. They can improve their health,” Chalat said.

Consumers are also paying more attention to nutrition, ingredients and how food is cooked, he noted.

In-season fruit and vegetables are good and more affordable.

He foresees baked snacks coming in this year as they offer health benefits compared to traditional deep-fried foods that use excessive amounts of added fats.

“Baked veggie chips, for example, are having their moment in the sun. They make a healthy snack choice as they help lower unhealthy fats. They are also low in calories and rich in fiber,” he said.

The demand for freeze-dried foods is also accelerating, Chalat noted, saying the process completely changes the food texture but the flavour stays the same.

“More and more people are snacking on freeze-dried fruits and vegetables like broccoli, strawberry, durian and mangosteen. They have no oil, no added sugar and no preservatives. The product has a crunchy texture, so a strawberry still tastes like a fresh raw strawberry. It can be delicious and nutritious,” he said.

The expert explained that freeze-dried fruits are vacuum dried at low temperatures so that the vitamins and minerals in the food are not destroyed.

Cannabis businesses in murky territory

Thailand removed cannabis and hemp from the Category 5 narcotics list in June 2022. It has opened new opportunities for food and beverage operators and businesses as the weed can be used in food and drink but products must contain less than 0.2% of THC.

Chalat said the cannabis-related businesses in Thailand is in a grey area as the legal status of cannabis in Thailand is still uncertain. He predicts new investments in the field this year will be slow.

Since the legalization, cannabis businesses have sprung up all over the country. Many franchise brands, restaurants and fusion cafes serve foods and drinks featuring the weed though the benefits are still under debate.

Cannabis businesses like this one in Bangkok’s Chinatown have sprung up all over the country. //Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae

The legalization has sparked concerns about the misuse among youths and faced strong criticism. Many have complained that the laws are too liberal and have been not clearly enforced as the unregulated sale of cannabis is everywhere.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has said the government will make amendments to the law on cannabis to restrict its use to medical purposes and control retail cannabis outlets within six months, according to a Thai PBS World report.

Healthy eating on a budget

Chalat provided tips to help people looking for ways to improve their food choices in the new year to stay healthy while not breaking the bank.

Slow economic growth is on the cards for 2024, with the World Bank recently slashing the country’s GDP growth estimate for this year to 2.5% from 3.4% in an earlier forecast, citing weak exports and the ongoing fiscal consolidation.

The country has also faced several challenges that will affect economic growth, among them the subdued Chinese demand for consumption and tourism, interest rate volatility, high household debt, ageing demographics and a shortage of skilled workers.

The expert suggested buying and eating local and seasonal produce to help save money.

“Prices of Thai beef noodles can range from 40 baht to hundreds of baht per bowl depending on the meat. If you go for locally raised meat, the dish will be less expensive than ones that use imported Wagyu beef. Both are good sources of protein. And in-season fruits also tend to be fresher and more affordable than out-of-season fruits,” Chalat said.

Cutting down on snacks can help people lose weight and reduce their grocery bill, he added. He also encourages people to drop the sodas and drink water to quench their thirst. “It’s good for you and it’s cheap,” he said

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk

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