SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 25, 2019 - 12:00am

If you’ve ever smelled Lucky Me batchoy steeping in boiling water, with the mouth-watering umami or savory aroma wafting around the room, you may understand the irresistible appeal of instant noodles.

The instant noodle industry has exploded in our country, with the production of items that are about a tenth the price of imported ramen. The affordability, ease of preparation and taste have made instant noodles the alternative staple to rice.

While the noodles are filling, however, they are low in nutrients, and most contain monosodium glutamate for that umami kick.

There are people who can’t get enough of instant noodles even if they can afford pricier food items. But there are also millions who because of poverty are left with few choices in assuaging hunger. It’s not unusual to see them carbo-loading, eating instant noodles with rice or pandesal.

There’s speculation that eating noodles late at night, with no physical activity to burn the food, causes pancreatic failure – what we call bangungot – which can be fatal and is said to be common among Asians.  

Bangungot-causing or not, the Department of Health wants to change such eating habits. Cheap doesn’t have to be poor in nutrients, the DOH stresses. Health Secretary Francisco Duque has said it: low-priced but filling food can be nutrient-enhanced with the addition of affordable items such as eggs and malunggay leaves. Affordable processed foods can be fortified with nutrients by manufacturers.

Government nutritionists may also work with manufacturers to replace MSG with other flavor enhancers. I’ve enjoyed MSG-free but tasty Japanese and Korean instant noodles that are reasonably priced. The umami is derived instead from marine products and clever combinations of spices and herbs.

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Proper nutrition is getting special attention these days amid reports that 30.3 percent of Filipino children up to 59 months old, or below age 5, are irreversibly stunted because of inadequate food and the required nutrients for normal growth.

This is according to the latest global nutrition report of the United Nations Children’s Fund, which also warned that obesity is on the rise among Filipino adolescents.

Physical stunting, health experts warn, also stunts intellectual development.

The 30.3 percent is slightly down from the 33 percent in the 2015 national nutrition survey. But with 11.6 million children under 5 years old, 30.3 percent still translates to 3.6 million malnourished, undernourished and stunted kids, Duque told “The Chiefs” last Wednesday on Cignal TV’s One News.

That’s a lot of children who have already lost their full growth potential at an early age.

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I’ve long believed that diet plays a critical role in physical development. My first cousins who were born and bred in the US are all significantly taller and bigger in build than those of us who grew up in the Philippines on a staple of rice and a lot of pork and chicken.

Their parents are Filipinos, we’re from the same gene pool. The only difference I can think of is that they grew up on a steady diet of beef, potatoes and milk.

From breast milk to S-26 formula and then on to fresh cow’s and carabao milk, I’ve been drinking milk regularly all my life. But like the typical Pinoy, I’m not big on beef and potatoes. I’ll take lechon manok and pork adobo any time to a sirloin. 

Pinoys do like corned beef (preservative-laden), bulalo and salty beef tapa in tapsilog. But pork and chicken are still the preferred meats – African swine fever and bird flu be damned. Not just because these meats are cheaper than good cuts of beef, but also because they are tastier.

The bland and sometimes bitter taste of vegetables, which are needed for proper nutrition, also makes it difficult to make children eat them.

There are people in the provinces who are aware of the rich nutrients in malunggay or moringa. The leaves are boiled and the juice or soup fed to babies as a supplement to mother’s milk. But this knowledge has to become more widespread.

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Promoting nutritious food can be a challenge for the DOH. Tasty and filling but nutrient-deficient junk food, laden with trans fats, salt, sugar and preservatives have become ubiquitous, readily available even in sari-sari stores in remote areas.

Duque points out that under President Duterte, an unprecedented seven laws have been passed to promote public health, including higher taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Those beverages together with junk snacks are being blamed for rising obesity among Filipino adolescents. The only time in my life that I became slightly overweight and needed to slim down, among the items that I cut from my diet were sweetened beverages. Combined with a reduction in my overall food intake, the resulting weight drop was dramatic.

These days I munch one raw leaf of “insulin plant” – costus igneus, fiery costus or spiral flag – with my main meal for the day, lunch. While my blood sugar level is normal, diabetes runs in our family, and I’ve met people with blood sugar problems who swear by the efficacy of the insulin plant. A pot with three small shoots costs about P350, but it’s a consistent bestseller at plant centers.

The plant tastes like kamias so it can’t be eaten with instant noodles like malunggay. But it can be an inexpensive way of managing blood sugar among those with a sweet tooth – and there are a lot of them in this land of sweet spaghetti.

The DOH already has a Plan of Action for Nutrition. It involves micronutrient feeding programs in schools, promotion of breastfeeding, and nutrient fortification particularly of processed foods.

Duque says the plan of action focuses on those who are nutritionally at risk.

“It will determine the future of these children,” he said.

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