Preface: this will be my first blog post in about a year! I hope you will stay in tuned for more as I plan to update much more regularly in these months!
Two weeks ago, I had participated in the ‘10th Thailand Congress of Nutrition‘ organized by the Nutrition Association of Thailand (สมาคมโภชนาการแห่งประเทศไทย). I was lucky enough to be given this opportunity due to my association with the Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University (where I’m interning at), which is a member of the Nutrition Association. Here’s the official webpage of the conference: http://www.tcn-conference.com/2016/home.php unfortunately, it is only in Thai. And no surprise, about 99.9% of participants at the conference were Thai.
I learned a lot at the conference — mostly on the climate of nutrition, food, and agriculture in Thailand. The topic of the conference was “Proactive Nutrition for Sustainability” (โภชนาการเชิงรุกเพื่อการพัฒนาที่ยั่งยืน). So I thought I would write a summary of my understanding of the conference, conveniently translated for English readers!
Here are some of my takeaways from the first day of the conference:
The title of the Keynote Address was “The Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy: An approach to Managing Food Businesses towards Public Nutrition.”
The speaker Assoc. Prof. Sooksan Kantabutra from the College of Management Mahidol University talked about the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy, how it has been established in the Thai agriculture industry, and how it can today be employed in Thai food businesses (in order “to enchance national nutrition and, as a consequence, their own corporate sustainability prospect”*).
For more details on the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy or “Sufficiency Thinking Model,” I recommend the book Sufficiency Thinking – Thailand’s gift to an unsustainable world. The book describes the model as a more humane-centered approach on capitalism to avoid greed and short-term thinking. The model, เศรษฐกิจพอเพียง, was pioneered by the recently passed his majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
*Words from extract of the Keynote Address
I was most interested in the examples of successful uses of the model by a few Thai food companies, as given by Mr. Kantabutra. For example, Xongdur ซองเดอร์, was the first Thai company to manufacture and sell organic cereal bars in the country. Their business model follows the Sufficiency Economy philosophy developed by his majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Xongdur supports their farmers/providers’ self-sufficiency, and are committed to delivering organic, safe, and healthful products to Thai people. Their production has been recognized by 13 Thai and international organizations!
I wouldn’t say Xongdur is a mainstream brand in the entire Thai food market — but they are certainly one of the most recognized health cereal product on the shelves (since they were one of the first in the trend). Personally, I’ve had their Black Sesame & 8 cereal bar, 15 Fruit & cereal bar, Sesame cereal drink, and Vanilla cereal drink — all of which were great tasting, not too high in calories nor too sweet. I also enjoy how Xongdur has a range of ‘no sugar’, ‘low sugar’, and ‘sugar’ for most of their products, to cater to different needs ^_^
Most of all, Xongdur is known for fair treatment for their workers, all of which also translates to great products for the customers.
Thai President Foods distributor of the famous MAMA มาม่า instant noodles was lauded for being the first Thai major food company to fortify their product. Thai President Foods was founded in 1972 and to this day, has been providing Thai people with affordable staple noodles for more than 40 years. The price of a packet of MAMA has been consistently ~5 Baht or 0.14 USD (as of today) since its manufacture.
Thailand has always had a public health problem with micronutrients deficiency in its population, such as iodine, iron, and vitamin A, especially in the countryside or remote areas. In 1997, Thai President Foods began to sell its products fortified with the mentioned vitamins and minerals, in the efforts to improve people’s health.
I know that you may be thinking — healthy and instant noodles shouldn’t even belong in the same sentence -_- It could be pure marketing, but the company has done good in transforming an already popular product into a more nutritionally adequate one, without barely increasing the price.
Here’s a look at their “mission statement“, arranged into a handy acronym, for those who are interested.
Nithi Foods is a “leading spices and seasoning products manufacturer based in Chiangmai, Thailand.” They are known for their high quality products and usage of his majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s sustainability model. Here is an extract from their webpage:
“When ask – What are Nithi Foods’ management principles? We proudly say it is the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy of His Majesty the King Bhumibol of Thailand. We adopt the principles of Reasonableness – Moderation – and Immunity on the foundation of morality and knowledge when making decisions and in business practices.”*
*From Nithi Foods website
Phung Noi Bakery ผึ้งน้อยเบเกอรี่ is also another Chiangmai-based food company. Phung Noi Bakery practices the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy by adhering to ‘local branding’ and ‘direct marketing.’ Phung Noi Bakery manufactures, and sell 90% of their own products while the rest 10% are products not produced by their bakery.
Ampol Food is another food company based in northern Thailand. Ampol Food is dedicated to developing healthy food products for the Thai public. They are currently in the process of creating a nutrition research center to be titled APF Nutrition Research Center. Ampol Food also owns the line of health-conscious condiments ‘Good Life’, which is dedicated to not only providing healthier options for consumers, but also provide nutrition knowledge. Their webpage contains a preface from “Professor Good Life” aka Professor Visith Chavasit of Institute of Nutrition Mahidol University who develop their products. In addition, the website also contain articles of health, exercise, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle tips. Some of their products include 40% sodium reduced fish sauce, 50% sodium reduced and no sugar added sweet chili sauce, and ‘coconut milk’ made from wheat (rice bran and sunflower oil) — said to contain a 1:1:1 ratio of SFA:MUFA:PUFA recommended by the American Heart Association.
Now, the first symposium at the conference was on the health situation and risks of chronic diseases in Thai population ‘สถานการณ์สุขภาพและปัจจัยเสี่ยงโรคเรื้อรังในประเทศไทย’ given by ศ. นพ.วิชัย เอกพลากร of Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital, Mahidol University
In 2014, a quinquennial (occurring every five years) MICS (Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey) was conducted nationwide by the National Statistic Office (their website is worth a visit, it’s got plenty of interesting statistics). The results were compared with those from 2009. Unfortunately, the survey showed that risks of chronic diseases in Thai population has increased, in particular, overweight conditions, diabetes, and hypertension. All of which were contributed by lifestyle, in particular, Thai people’s current food choices, proportions, which has adverse health effects, and decreased amount of physical activity. One of the few good news from the study was the fact that total cholesterol >=240 mg/dL in the population has decreased from 19.4% in 2009 to 16.4% in 2014.
Unfortunately, these trends of NCD (Non-communicable disease) are not only unique to Thailand. The speaker brought up the study, Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19·2 million participants, published in the Lancet. The study found that:
“Over the past four decades, we have transitioned from a world in which underweight prevalence was more than double that of obesity, to one in which more people are obese than underweight, both globally and in all regions except parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.”
However, it was interesting to note that:
“The rate of increase in BMI since 2000 has been slower than in the preceding decades in high-income countries, where adiposity became an explicit public health concern around this time, (27,28) and in some middle-income countries. However, because the rate of BMI increase has accelerated in some other regions, the global increase in BMI has not slowed down. If post-2000 trends continue, not only will the world not meet the global target for halting the increase in obesity, but also severe obesity will surpass underweight in women by 2025. Nonetheless, underweight remains a public health problem in south Asia and central and east Africa.”*
*Extracts from the aforementioned paper
Thailand is certainly amongst the ‘other regions’ they spoke of.
The speaker then tied these findings to a recent publication on diabetes prevalence trends in ‘ASEAN plus 5.’ Unfortunately, I was unable to find the cited paper – _ – (if anyone knows, please leave a link below!). From my memory, one of the ‘plus 5’ was Japan. This was because the speaker highlighted the fact that despite increasing diabetes rates in all ASEAN plus 5, Japanese females had a declining trend! Other than Japan, Singapore (both male and female), Vietnam (males) were amazingly maintaining a non rising nor declining rate. And from my memory, Thailand is only second to Malaysia in ASEAN, in the prevalence of diabetes.
As a note, this study was conducted by measurement of the impaired fasting glucose (so I believe pre-diabetic individuals were also included).
Other than adult obesity, Thailand is also one of the leading in childhood obesity rate. During our lunch symposium (I posted pictures of their packaged meals on my instagram), we were introduced to a Nestle sponsored program ‘United for Healthier Kids TH‘ which aim to combat this burgeoning double burden.
I know you may be thinking — hmm.. a multi-billion dollar food company sponsored program? But I actually quite enjoyed their Thai campaign. There’s almost zero brand promotion, plenty of nutrition knowledge resources for parents, healthy cooking videos on their Facebook page, and the company has partnered with Thailand’s Office of The Basic Education Commission and Ministry of Education, amongst other government institutions.
Their unique new campaign is the “Hero Meal” campaign — turning vegetables, eggs, and water into cute cartoon characters that attract kids and encourage them to consume more healthy whole foods. I guess the idea is similar to the “Popeye spinach effect“.
The next symposium was on Green Economy for security of the food system given by Assoc. Prof. Visith Chavasit, Ph.D of Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University. This is kind of a heavy topic for Thai people.
In his extract, Dr. Chavasit named the appropriateness of the relationship between agriculture, manufacture of nutritious produce, and health of the population, as important factors in creating food stability in the country. Thailand is an agricultural country rich in arable land and well suited climate, as a result, it has been challenged by large industries and overseas market to produce numerous agricultural products for both domestic and international markets.
Thailand is the word’s largest exporter of rubber, shrimp, cassava products, and the world’s second producer of rice. Due to these outstanding circumstances, it has created changes in the previously abundant lands, that were sources of natural reservoir and food, into canvas for monoculture. Food and natural resources has been wholly utilized to respond to various markets. Past and current developments have all been in the receiving end, which is devoid of practicality and sustainability. This has continuously affected environments related to the food system. For example, deforestation which in turn damages water sources and biodiversity, and an inefficient water management system, the push for economic growth without consideration to social consequences.
A social cofactor of Thailand’s current food system includes a rapidly aging society, urbanization, widening wealth gap, and the population’s potential to respond to changes in social economy and technology, etc. All of these affect the population’s health and sustainability of the food system. Current consequences of these include over-nutrition, rapid spread of NCD’s (non-communicable diseases), aging farmers (The speaker mentioned almost all farmers he spoke to are over 60 — this case also applies elsewhere such as in the US), drought, floods, and the precipitation of the production of food exports to the point where the domestic market is affected, consumers’ lack of awareness, etc.
The speaker asks — at this moment, is international competition in exports and tourism the true indicators, and what is the sweet spot? Thailand is a lit match, burning itself to respond to others’ needs and pride in world economic rankings, only for monetary rewards? In the end we would only end up as a small mound of ash.
Dr. Chavasit concluded his symposium by presenting the ‘Green Economy’, with the key terms ‘Innovative Inclusive Restorative’, or the redistribution of land and resources for lasting sustainability and sufficiency (as endorsed by the late his majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej) in the food system, as a way out of this problem.
To help illustrate his point, Dr. Chavasit cited the World Fresh Water supply map (if anyone can find this please provide link below!), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) document which contained graphics showing food loss and waste by region and stage in the world. He mentioned that countries like Japan and Singapore with self-agriculture rates of only 30% and 10% (respectively), are still able to maintain a relatively sustainable and stable economy.
To brighten things up a bit, Dr. Chavasit presented us with some successful ‘Green Economy’ projects such as สัญญาหน้าฝน (roughly translated as: Rainy Season Promise) where during every rainy season, orchard farmers who live in flood-prone areas send their rare specimens to another group of orchard farmers living in safe areas. The orchard farmers on the receiving end are granted pieces of the specimens, on the promise that they must take good care of the plants and of course, return them after the end of the season (the name of the project is also the title of a popular rock song in the early 2000s). Another example is ไร่หมุนเวียน or shifting cultivation, which is popularly practiced by northern ethnic minorities who farm in the rich forests. It is the “recycling” of agriculture area, where cultivated lands which are no longer fertile are abandoned, allowed to grow into forests, before being once again turned into a farming land.
That is about all I recovered from the first day of the conference. Please stay in tuned for contents from the second day of the conference! They include Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCD’s by Dr. Renu Garg, WHO representative, and the application of WHO’s “Best Practice” model in Thailand. Now, I’ll end with an official music video of the song สัญญาหน้าฝน or Rainy Season Promise by Carabao /(>w<)/