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IMU’s Centre for Transformative Nutrition and Health Collaborates with A-Star to Assist Asians to Choose Carbohydrates Wisely!

07 Sep 2021

Hmm, why specifically carbohydrates you may ask. Let us tell you, our story from where it all begins!

Blood sugar levels are determined predominantly by the amount and quality of carbohydrates in one’s diet. This is because carbohydrates are broken down to sugar during digestion and are absorbed into the blood. Mainstream scientific evidence does not support low carbohydrate diets but emphasises the importance of choosing good quality carbohydrates. This becomes especially important in Asia where our diets are high in carbohydrates, making low-carbohydrate diets are not sustainable or affordable to most!

These nuances become even more important in the background of today’s Covid-19 pandemic. This unprecedented global event has made us acutely aware of the health implications of unhealthy diets, obesity, and diabetes. Both diabetes and obesity are associated with raised blood sugar levels that increase inflammation. High levels of inflammation among other harmful effects can also compromise immunity and make people more susceptible to infections.  This is one of the reasons why people with diabetes recover slower after illness or surgery and stay longer in hospitals accruing higher costs when compared to those without diabetes.

So how do we improve the quality of the carbohydrates we eat? This is where glycaemic Index (GI) comes into play. GI is a number that indicates the quality of carbohydrates in foods. Higher the GI of a food, the higher and more rapidly it raises blood sugar when consumed.

Food is categorised as having
a high GI if its GI value is 70 and higher. a medium GI if its GI is 56 to 69 a low GI if its GI is 55 or lower.

Knowing these numbers is important for consumers to make an informed choice especially for those who want to watch their weight or control their diabetes (see table below).

Prof Jeyakumar Henry, a senior advisor at Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and the lead scientist of this collaboration says:

“Unfortunately, it was very difficult to access GI values of Asian and non-western foods as there was no database and international databases gave very little focus to the region. I began my work in GI 25 years ago in the United Kingdom and when I moved to Singapore in 2011, I was acutely aware of the paucity of GI values for Asian and non-western foods.”

So, the seed for this idea was born at the inaugural ASEAN Food Science and Nutrition Network conference hosted in Singapore in 2019, where IMU was one of the invited attendees. This was the first bilateral effort between IMU and Science, Technology and Research’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).

This humongous undertaking of compiling the GI values of non-western foods was taken up as a challenge by 5 scientists from A-Star Singapore and IMU-CTNH. Locked down in their respective countries, the team came together ‘virtually’ to painstakingly create a compendium of GI values of Asian foods.  A sample of the GI values collated for Malaysian foods is added here as a quick reference for the readers. The paper is free for access to everyone at

Dr Sangeetha Shyam, from IMU’s Centre for Transformative Nutrition and Health (CTNH), Malaysia says

“At IMU we had pioneered the DIETPLUS Version 3 way back in 2010 when an in-house Malaysian GI and nutrient calculator was created to support low GI dietary studies in Malaysia to prevent or treat diabetes. However, with GI receiving a lot of interest, there has been a frenzy of work and we needed urgent updates to improve the accuracy with which we could estimate GI of Malaysian diets “

Sample Malaysian GI values from this compendium
1. Fried mihun 45 Low
2. Yellow-fleshed watermelon 47 Low
3. Red-fleshed seeded watermelon 48 Low
4. Coconut milk rice 49 Low
5. Basmati 50 Low
6. Fried noodles with chicken and prawns 55 Low
7. Thai red 55 Low
8. Muffin 58 Medium
9. Noodles 60 Medium
10. Chiffon cake 60 Medium
11. Biscuit 61 Medium
12. Parboiled rice 61 Medium
13. Fragrant  white  rice 67 Medium
14. Red rice 68 Medium
15. Flat bread (roti canai) with dhal curry 69 Medium
16. White rice 79 High
17. Jasmine 79 High
18. Fried kuay teow- Terengganu 80 High
19. Lacy pancake (roti jala) with chicken curry 81 High
20. Bun 82 High
21. Polished brown rice 86 High
22. Kuih (apam ayu) 91 High

This compendium has been recently acknowledged “as a positive step towards greater representation of Asian-Indian foods” by Prof Jeannie Miller, a world-renowned GI-expert at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Dr Bhupinder Kaur and Dr Rina Quek from SIFBI recall their experience of working with peers across borders during the pandemic.

“Remote collaboration with our friends across the borders encouraged socialization. One of our collaborative works involved the compilation of an extensive GI compendium. It was challenging in that it had taken months to compile however, despite the pandemic, it was still possible to produce such important data for our region. There were many fruitful conversations on our work while maintaining that “virtual” human connection with our peers across the borders. Before the pandemic and even today, this has not halted our wonderful collaboration”.

Dr Harvinder Kaur form IMU who completed this team of five scientists shares that

 “We found it really handy to improve the accuracy of the estimate GI values of Malaysian diets in one of our recent investigations.”

Dr Sangeetha and Dr Harvinder recall their long sessions of being stuck to the computer screen during the intense lockdowns between February and June 2020. “It helped us escape the gruesome news that was coming in every day” they agree in unison. What next? – we ask Prof Henry.

“We would like to have a much broader compendium for non-western Foods. We look forward to making the data accessible to more countries and consumers. Both our institutes are involved in GI-related studies encompassing the spectrum from basic to translational research. We plan to collaboratively disseminate the knowledge for science and the greater good!”

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