The super-trends driving food innovation in China

Just Food's China columnist Peter Peverelli believes there are two trends at the centre of product innovation in China’s food industry.

There are two concepts that are driving much of the innovation from China’s domestic packaged-food manufacturers – and companies either already doing business in the country or wanting to crack the market must take these into account.

A trend that currently affects virtually every aspect of Chinese society is guochao, or the ‘national trend’, which encompasses a renewed interest in traditional Chinese culture (both material and immaterial).

The economic reforms of the late 20th century made many (then) young Chinese turn their back on traditions, seeking new solutions in the present and in the western world.
This is now changing. The shift can be partly linked to the enormous advancement of Chinese science and technology. One could argue the Chinese now have more to be proud of.

Recent anti-Chinese sentiments in the west are another driver of this trend. During a recent bakery conference held in Guangzhou in June, it was mentioned that a considerable number of consumers of the post-90/post-2000 generation were interested in restoring traditional Chinese culture, according to the China Food Newspaper publication.

The national trend is noticeable in several aspects, including on packaging and the use of traditional Chinese symbols. Product formulation is another: using ‘forgotten’ or local ingredients like various coarse grains or tubers. There is an increased interest in older Chinese brands. Chinese venture capitalists are starting to invest in such brands, some of which are now seeking listings on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

Pengke yangsheng – the ‘punk diet’

A trend that has appeared among the same post-90/post-2000 consumer segment is pengke yangsheng, or the ‘punk diet’.

These consumers tend to work late, often until after midnight. They smoke less than their parents, but eat irregularly, with a preference for snacks and sweets, that can be eaten in front of your PC.

However, these consumers also want to stay fit and healthy. They frequent the gym but also try to get nutrition from convenience foods enriched with nutrients. These can be vitamins and minerals, but also extracts from traditional Chinese medicinal (TCM) herbs. These are also looking for products low in sugar and salt.

A food to think about in this context is the energy bar. Energy bars are the ideal ‘punk diet’ food. They can be consumed with one hand, while the other remains functional (e.g., for moving a mouse). They provide energy but are also a source of fibre and nutrients, so comforting to both your stomach and your conscience.

The Chinese name for this product, yingyangbang, literally means: ‘nutrition stick’. Nuts, a natural source of nutrients, form a common ingredient but you can add whatever you want, or, better, is allowed by the local regulations.

Another occasion for consuming energy bars in China is what I would like to translate as ‘après fitness’ (jianshenhou). The Chinese are just starting to ski but fitness centres are extremely popular.

One recent study cited by reports there are more than 43 million patrons of fitness centres. After a tough spell on a treadmill, you need something that gives you energy without making you gain weight again. The same study mentions energy bars as the most favourite après fitness snack.

A company to note in this context is Hangmei Food Science & Technology, based in the eastern city of Hangzhou and so a neighbour of Alibaba. Hangmei profiles itself as a private-label sports-nutrition and weight-management manufacturer, but also includes an R&D department that is headed by one of Hangmei’s founders, Zheng Yadan. The department has designed a broad range of energy bars. Ms. Zheng personally has a number of meal replacer energy bar patents to her name.

Multinationals are reacting

The national trend is something all foreign suppliers have to think about. Until very recently, imported food was synonymous with fancy, high-quality, reliable products. They come with a premium price tag, which urbanites and a growing group of rural consumers in China were happy to pay.

With the improving quality of domestic packaged food, imported food was already losing its glamour but it is now rapidly becoming a characteristic some Chinese dislike.

The upside is that those consumers are still willing to pay a premium price for fortified convenience foods. Multinationals with a longer and stronger history in China are already responding. Starbucks started participating in the annual introduction of new types of mooncakes that are consumed during the traditional Mid Autumn Festival. Their mooncakes combine traditional shapes with western flavours.

Häagen-Dazs has reaped success with its ice cream mooncakes. Nestlé has more recently launched a range of ice cream, branded Yuexinyi (‘new Cantonese ideas’), with flavours inspired by Cantonese cuisine.

However, Chinese nationalism is also expressed in interest in other cultural traditions. Even some Chinese dairy-based desserts have European castles as decoration on their packaging to give the product a ‘traditional’ charisma.

It should be easy to pick up the ‘punk diet’ trend. Healthier food, including snacks, is also a trend in the western world. Manufacturers that still believe their super-healthy lite products have no market in China are misguided.

Any product designed for selling in fitness centres can be directly marketed in China. Fitness fans will prefer smaller portions. Punk dieters are in general more individualistic than the average Chinese.

Suppliers of candy bars would be well advised to re-examine their formulations for the Chinese market. Mars’ adapted Snickers bars are very interesting examples. I recently saw an ad for two new Snickers bars, one with purple sweet potato and the other with black rice. Both products consist of three layers of wafer with a layer of cream and a layer of sweet potato and black rice respectively.

These are completely different from the Snickers bars we are used to and also from the crunchy Snickers with popped rice. This is an interesting mix of adapting to changing expectations regarding nutrition and to the nationalist trend by adding traditional Chinese ingredients. Purple sweet potato and black rice are attributed medicinal properties by TCM.

A Snickers bar is regarded as less healthy food, in China as in the west. However, when you add ingredients that are known as healthy (purple sweet potato and black rice are loaded with antioxidants apart from the other nutrients the offer), the new bars can be positioned as being part of healthier living, or at least make consumers feel they are snacking more healthily.

A common trait of the companies listed above as examples is they are so dedicated to the Chinese market that they have set up R&D in the country. China is big enough to justify such an investment. In fact, if I were in charge of strategy at Mars, I would seriously consider a pilot with these two Snickers bars in Europe. The Chinese market seems now to have reached a stage of maturity that it can become a global source of novel foods.