Nasi lemak – healthy or not?

Our food science writer weighs in on our beloved nasi lemak, and puts the Time mag­a­zine choice in per­spec­tive.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By CHRIS CHAN

THE re­cent ar­ti­cle in Time mag­a­zine which stated that nasi lemak is one of 10 healthy in­ter­na­tional break­fasts was picked up by most ma­jor Malaysian news­pa­pers and one can pre­sume, gen­er­ated much con­ver­sa­tion in ko­pi­ti­ams across the coun­try. Malaysians are both be­mused and de­lighted at the el­e­va­tion of nasi lemak as a healthy break­fast food.

Ba­si­cally, the story lists the au­thor’s choice in each of 10 se­lected coun­tries. Pre­sum­ably, if an­other 10 coun­tries are se­lected, then there will be an­other 10 “healthy” break­fasts – so per­haps we should get real and re­alise that he did not say that nasi lemak is one of the world’s top 10 health­i­est break­fasts.

It may be that nasi lemak is just the health­i­est ( or least un­healthy) op­tion in a coun­try sat­u­rated with fatty foods – the main story ac­tu­ally is that nasi lemak and nine other coun­try choices are health­ier than the reg­u­lar Amer­i­can break­fast op­tions.

So, apolo­gies if you’re a se­ri­ous fan chomp­ing on a plate of nasi lemak while read­ing this – but that’s the purely an­a­lyt­i­cal view.

And talk­ing about Amer­i­can break­fast op­tions, I once had a break­fast at Denny’s in Florida which came with so much food that I had to push back the beef pat­ties and slices of ba­con flop­ping over the side of the main plate – it was like a sur­real Man Vs Food mo­ment and in the end, I have to ad­mit, Food won ( again) as usu­ally hap­pens in the United States.

So that’s what the writer had as a base­line in his search for a “healthy” break­fast.

But since we are on the sub­ject, let’s in­ves­ti­gate a lit­tle what goes on in a plate of nasi lemak from a food chem­istry point of view.

From a calorific point of view, a plate of nasi lemak with some chicken, meat or fish con­tains be­tween 800 to well over 1000 calo­ries, de­pend­ing on the op­tions se­lected – this is roughly equiv­a­lent to eat­ing four fast food ham­burg­ers.

So hav­ing nasi lemak for break­fast means that over half the daily calo­ries needed by most peo­ple are al­ready in­gested. This may not be sig­nif­i­cant if eat­ing can be con­trolled over the rest of the day – and in any case, many peo­ple may pre­fer to have their calo­ries at the start of the day.

Cu­cum­ber is cool

Start­ing with the lit­tle stuff, most plates of nasi lemak have some cu­cum­ber, a fruit vegetable from the cu­cur­bitaceae fam­ily which also in­cludes mel­ons. The species found in Malaysia is nor­mally cu­cumis sativus linn, and the vegetable is 95% wa­ter, around 16 calo­ries for each 100 grams in weight and is an ex­cel­lent source of vi­ta­min K.

A sprin­kling of peanuts

Some ven­dors will scat­ter a few roasted peanuts on top of the rice. For ev­ery 5 grams, they add 25 calo­ries to the dish. The peanuts in­tro­duce a bit more fat, fi­bre, vi­ta­min B2, mag­ne­sium and some other trace min­er­als.

Sam­bal, of course

Next would prob­a­bly be the sam­bal, a spicy sauce made with chill­ies, shrimp or fish paste pounded with herbs such as gar­lic, shal­lots, ginger and fur­ther flavoured with tamarind, lime juice or vine­gar, palm sugar and salt.

Tra­di­tion­ally, most sam­bals for nasi lemak would also be fried in oil and may also be gar­nished with dried an­chovies ( ikan bilis) cooked with the sam­bal or deep- fried and scat­tered on top.

Gen­er­ally, most of the base in­gre­di­ents, apart from the sugar, are not prob­lem­atic – for ex­am­ple, chill­ies in­tro­duce cap­saicin, the chem­i­cal which causes chemes­the-sis, the ef­fect of feel­ing heat in the mouth.

Cap­saicin is a very com­plex, in­ter­est­ing com­pound which has been claimed to de­crease the ab­sorp­tion of food calo­ries and in­crease fat ox­i­da­tion in hu­mans, al­though this claim seems to be based on a study with only 15 peo­ple in­volved, so please don’t read too much into it.

What is more con­clu­sive is that cap­saicin has been shown to be able to help break down fats in rats and lower aor­tic choles­terol lev­els in tur­keys – so if you have a tur­key with heart dis­ease, then per­haps you should in­clude a few chill­ies in its diet. The an­chovies are also fine as a source of pro­tein and some Omega- 3 fatty acids.

The prob­lem with sam­bal gen­er­ally arises from the fry­ing in oil. De­pend­ing on the oil used, this can in­tro­duce trans- fats and the pun­gent aroma of sam­bal arises from the pro­duc­tion of com­plex aro­matic com­pounds called Ad­vanced Gly­ca­tion End prod­ucts ( AGEs) via the Mail­lard re­ac­tion. Most AGEs are known to dam­age pro­tein struc­tures in the body.

The qual­ity of the oil is also sig­nif­i­cant – a poor qual­ity oil will ox­i­dise rapidly and pro­duce other un­savoury chem­i­cal com­pounds such as per­ox­ides, alke­nals, alde­hy­des and other free rad­i­cals, with the quan­ti­ties de­pend­ing on the fry­ing tem­per­a­tures.

Also, all com- mer­cial cook­ing oils in­tro­duce Omega- 6 fatty acids, which may add to in­flam­ma­tion is­sues in the body. There is nor­mally around 15 to 30 grams of sam­bal on a plate of nasi lemak which pro­vides around 70 to 140 calo­ries.

the op­tional egg

Next would be the egg, which is op­tional. If it is boiled, the ( whole) egg in­tro­duces around 55 to 70 calo­ries and con­tains some vi­ta­mins ( A, B2, D), io­dine, phos­pho­rus, cal­cium and thi­amine. If the egg is fried, then the calo­ries would in­crease by about 35%.

Fried chicken

The main gar­nish is usu­ally a piece of fried chicken and the por­tion sizes will vary de­pend­ing on the ven­dor. So just be aware that 100 grams of fried chicken in­tro­duces ap­prox­i­mately 250 calo­ries to the nasi lemak and all the com­ments ear­lier about cook­ing in oil also ap­plies to the fried chicken.

Some places may of­fer fried fish in­stead and if so, then there are around 210 calo­ries per 100 grams.

Fried chicken con­trib­utes a good dose of pro­tein and some potas­sium, mag­ne­sium, iron and vi­ta­min B6 – but also quite a lot of ad­di­tional fat, which de­rives mainly from the fry­ing oil and the skin. The fat it­self is not nec­es­sar­ily prob­lem­atic but that’s highly de­pen­dent on the qual­ity of oil used.

A sober­ing look at rice

The main in­gre­di­ent of nasi lemak is of course white rice cooked in co­conut milk. This item is the ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the calo­ries, around 300 calo­ries per 100 grams – and one sup­poses that a nor­mal por­tion would be roughly one and a half times to dou­ble that amount. Rice pro­vides a sig­nif­i­cant amount of man­ganese and also some zinc, phos­pho­rus and vi­ta­mins B5 and B6.

Al­though many rich claims have been made about the health ben­e­fits of co­conut milk, there is not much hard re­search to jus­tify such ad­ju­ra­tions. The in­put of co­conut milk is mainly sat­u­rated fat, along with some di­etary fi­bre and trace min­er­als and vi­ta­mins.

While un­doubt­edly tasty and tex­tu­rally pleas­ant to eat, it should be noted that the white rice in nasi lemak is a ready source of a sol­u­ble starch called amy­lopectin.

This is a polysac­cha­ride made up of sev­eral branches of glu­cose mol­e­cules – be­ing wa­ter sol­u­ble, it is very eas­ily di­gested with a pretty low ther­mic ef­fect of food ( TEF, or loss of calo­ries dur­ing di­ges­tion) and there­fore has a very high Gly­caemic Index ( GI).

This is ob­vi­ously not good news for di­a­bet­ics or peo­ple with a pre­dis­po­si­tion to di­a­betes due to the rush of glu­cose into the blood that arises from di­gest­ing rice.

the di­a­betes con­nec­tion

Even more sober­ing is that ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion of rice has been im­pli­cated as a po­ten­tial cause of di­a­betes in the first place – this is based on a global study pub­lished in the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal which cov­ered 350,000 peo­ple.

If you are scoff­ing at this be­cause you know that Malaysians eat rice al­most ev­ery day, and you are feel­ing per­fectly healthy, the In­ter­na­tional Di­a­betes Fed­er­a­tion ( IDF) re­ported a count of 3.3 mil­lion di­a­bet­ics in Malaysia in 2015 – the in­ci­dence of di­a­betes runs as high as 24% in cer­tain age de­mo­graph­ics in the coun­try.

How­ever, Malaysians also have a propen­sity to con­sume ex­tremely sug­ary drinks and desserts with their meals and this cul­tural sweet tooth prob­a­bly con­trib­utes quite sig­nif­i­cantly to the di­a­betes rate – ex­cess di­etary sugar has been widely linked with obe­sity and di­a­betes.

So now you know

So now you know more of the rel­e­vant facts about nasi lemak. They only con­firm that not all dishes are healthy and per­fect – and very of­ten we love such food pre­cisely be­cause its nu­tri­tional flaws are what make it taste so good.

And re­gard­less of ev­ery­thing writ­ten so far, I would still be de­lighted to have a nasi lemak with friends or fam­ily any day of the week – but to be truth­ful, prob­a­bly not ev­ery day of the week.

Chris Chan writes a fort­nightly in­ves­tiga­tive food science col­umn, Cu­ri­ous Cook, in Star2. to read more of his sto­ries go to Star2. com.

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