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Homecna_insider singaporeEver had a negative-calorie meal? This is how ‘zero-calorie’ foods measure up

Ever had a negative-calorie meal? This is how ‘zero-calorie’ foods measure up

SINGAPORE: How much more would you pay for sugar substitutes with no calories?

For events operations co-ordinator Janice Neo, her spending on these products comes to “quite a bit”. “Two kilogrammes of sugar will probably cost you S$5, but I’m willing to spend up to S$50 on the monk fruit sweeteners,” she said.

She is not alone in that. Spark Chen, a tertiary student on a weight-loss journey, spends “30 to 40 per cent” of his monthly food budget on zero-calorie products.

But do these foods and drinks live up to their name and contain no calories at all?

The programme Talking Point put some of the more popular products to the test — zero-calorie sriracha, konjac jelly, olive oil cooking spray, zero-calorie isotonic and carbonated drinks and a honey substitute — and the results surprised some users.

WATCH: Zero-calorie food — What am I eating? Is it healthier? (22:10)

Of the six foodstuffs sent to testing, inspection and certification company SGS Singapore, only one had truly no calories. The other five contained two to six calories per serving.

According to Health Promotion Board (HPB) guidelines, products with up to five calories per serving can be packaged for sale as calorie-free.

Responding to Talking Point’s queries about the product found to have six calories per serving — the konjac jelly — the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and the Health Promotion Board said there is “an allowance of 20 per cent variance during lab testing”.

Still, the SFA is “looking into the matter”.

Products like the olive oil spray, however, can be labelled “zero-calorie” despite containing two calories per serving and the whole bottle containing 1,074 calories.

The one product that was tested and really had zero calories was the honey substitute, made with monk fruit syrup. Many zero-calorie products, however, contain artificial sweeteners, which evidence suggests is not as good for you as you might think.


So how is a product like zero-calorie “honey” made? The key ingredient is monk fruit, “more commonly known in Singapore as luo han guo”, said Dominic Li, director of local company Zest Foods, which distributes the product.


With ingredients containing virtually no calories, is it then possible to eat a negative-calorie meal? The concept is increasingly popular among people who are trying, for example, to adopt a healthy lifestyle or lose weight, observed consultant gastroenterologist Andrea Rajnakova.

They believe that certain foods require more energy to digest than the caloric content of the food itself, she said and cited celery, lettuce, tomato and watermelon as examples.

But there are some misconceptions about this weight-loss method, cautioned Rajnakova, who detailed how the energy required to metabolise food — the “thermic effect” of food — accounts for a very small portion of the body’s energy expenditure.

“If we’re (taking) these sorts of foods as a part of our diet, the contribution of the thermic effect of the meals is so negligible that we won’t be able to expect any weight changes,” she said.

“If they give you zero calories, the value of the nutrient is also zero,” she added.


But even if the calorie count is not really zero — a tablespoon of zero-calorie sriracha sauce is 12 calories, compared to four calories in a teaspoon — some users think these products are worth the price.

In the case of the monk fruit honey, the price difference is close to three times, but it remains one of Neo’s favourite products. “It still makes a big (caloric) difference compared to the real version,” she said.

“It’s still going to be the healthier alternative,” said Hakim Rahim, a senior designer who consumes zero-calorie products on an almost daily basis.

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