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Business Advice

Dad inspires her to open shop for diabetics

Ms Gene Tan wants to cater for Asian taste buds by offering diabetic-friendly rice and pasta.
The Straits Times - December 15, 2011
By: Joan Chew
| More
Dad inspires her to open shop for diabetics Ms Gene Tan used to lug home bags of diabetic-friendly food for her father when she travelled to the United States or Australia. -- ST PHOTO: NURIA LING

It is normal to come home from holidays bearing knick-knacks and souvenirs for friends and family.

Ms Gene Tan, however, would haul home from the United States or Australia a carry-on suitcase filled to the brim with diabetic-friendly food products for her father.

There would be chocolates, biscuits and jams made with natural sweeteners such as sugar alcohol instead of sugar.

Background story

In Singapore, 11.3% of adults suffer from diabetes

For those with type-2 diabetes, the cells of the body cannot properly use the hormone insulin to keep blood sugar levels normal.

So diabetics, like Ms Tan's 64-year-old father, Mr Tan Ngak Siang, need to avoid a diet rich in sugar and carbohydrates to keep their blood sugar levels under control.

When Mr Tan was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes more than 15 years ago, he resigned himself to going without sweets - until he saw supermarket shelves in the US stacked with sugar-free food products.

Ms Tan recalled: 'His eyes lit up. I realised it is important for a diabetic to have the option of indulging in chocolates once in a while.'

This prompted the 36-year-old to take a hiatus from her IT job last year and start a business selling food and lifestyle products for diabetics.

The online business expanded into a bricks-and-mortar store, The Diabetic Shop, in Square 2 in June. It is within walking distance of Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Novena Medical Centre and a shuttle bus ride away from KK Women's and Children's Hospital and Mount Alvernia Hospital.

The shop now stocks 150 products, mostly imported, which include sugar-free biscuits, diabetic-friendly cakes and herbal tea.

While these types of food are increasingly finding their way to supermarkets, Ms Tan feels she can fill a need by catering specifically for diabetics in a one-stop location. After all, diabetes is a growing problem, with 11.3 per cent of adults here suffering from the chronic metabolic disease.

On an average day, she gets about 20 people visiting the store, half of whom will buy something.

Ms Tan especially wants to offer products which cater to Asian palates.

Two weeks ago, she began selling rice which was tested to have a low glycaemic index.

The glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly blood glucose peaks after a person eats a particular type of food, on a scale of zero to 100. A score of 55 and below is low; that of 70 and above is high. The lower the index, the slower the food is digested and the slower the blood sugar increases.

Food with low GI, such as wholegrains, makes someone feel full faster and less likely to get hungry quickly. Polished white rice, the staple of Asian diets, generally has a medium to high GI of more than 60.

Having read that basmati rice is thought to have a lower GI, Ms Tan imported rice samples from India, Bangladash and Pakistan and tested them.

She found a GI research unit at Temasek Polytechnic (TP) and pumped in several thousand dollars to get five types of basmati rice tested over four months.

Four were found not to have a low GI. But one of them, parboiled basmati - vacuum-dried, steamed and husked - had a GI of 55, which just about qualified it as having a low GI.

Parboiling changed the chemical structure of the rice and thus its GI, said Ms Kalpana Bhaskaran, section head of nutrition research at the School of Applied Science in TP.

Ms Tan also had the basmati rice tested at food analysis company ALS Food & Pharmaceutical to compare its nutritional content with white and brown rice sold in supermarkets.

The product, which she calls DreamRice, contains about 1.4g of dietary fibre per 100g - higher than white jasmine rice (about 0.2g per 100g), but less than brown jasmine rice (about 2.5 to 3g per 100g). It also has more protein than most types of white and brown rice and a lower fat content than brown rice.

Madam Faye Chin, a 58-year-old retiree, managed to get her diabetic husband to switch to DreamRice. He had refused to switch to brown rice earlier.

She said: 'He didn't like the taste, not even when I mixed brown rice with normal white rice.'

However, he finds that DreamRice tastes almost similar to white rice.

Ms Tan said the demand for healthier staples is fuelling sales of the rice, though it is more expensive than regular Thai fragrant rice.

DreamRice costs $11 for 2kg and $22 for 5kg. A 5kg sack of Thai white rice costs between $5.90 and $15.50 at a supermarket chain.

So far, Ms Tan sells between 30 and 35 packets of DreamRice at her shop each week.

In time, the mother of two hopes to test and offer more low GI staples such as noodles, beehoon and kway teow.

Ms Kala Adaikan, principal dietitian at Singapore General Hospital, noted the GI of foods is only one factor that diabetics should consider when planning their diets.

She also cautioned that some diabetic food products may not have sugar but may contain starch, which will affect blood glucose levels. Diabetics should not overeat them. Some sweeteners may also have a laxative effect when eaten in large quantities.

Having diabetes does not mean that everyday food items are out of bounds, nor does it restrict the person to diabetic food products, she said.

The key is to employ carbohydrate counting techniques and wise meal-planning, she advised.

Still, Ms Tan believes that offering diabetic food products can improve a diabetic's quality of life. She said: 'Instead of restricting themselves to having only a mouthful of chocolates, they can be less stringent and eat a whole row of diabetic chocolate.'

 

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