just-food’s China columnist Peter Peverelli looks at the trend for qingshi, which takes in foods low in salt and fat and also has broader health connotations.
‘Light eating’ is the literal translation of the Chinese term qingshi, a recently-coined term referring to a broad spectrum of healthier foods.
Qingshi incorporates the entire ‘low fat, low sugar, low salt’ trend seen across the West but is also used for eating smaller meals or portions than usual.
But qingshi is not just a Western trend catching on in China. The ancient Chinese medical classic Huangdi Neijing, the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, dating back several centuries BC, warned against overeating in general and consuming too much fish or meat.
A number of Chinese food companies have incorporated the term qingshi in their product names. Chinese B2B food site www.spzs.com shows a range of products, with the below some notable examples:
Liunianyu Qingshi Cereal Drink, by Lishang Food Co., Ltd. (based in Taizhou, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province). The drink is a meal replacement made from milk and cereals. The product is specifically advertised as fitting the qingshi trend.
Guwuyuan Konjac Sweet Potato Qingshi Congee Replacer, by Guwuyuan Food Co., Ltd. (located further south in Gao’an in Jiangxi). These are sachets that can be mixed with boiling water to create an instant congee. They also contains chia seeds and oat flakes. Guwuyuan advertises the product as consisting of 22 qingshi ingredients, including powders or flakes of: konjac, job’s tears, tuckahoe, dioscorea, haricot verts, purple sweet potato and oats.
Qingshi Buluo (Light Food Tribe) Low Fat Noodles, produced by Qingshi Buluo Food Co., Ltd. (Guangzhou, Guangdong). This company – with the term qingshi in its name – was founded in November 2018 as a specialist producer of food for people actively engaged in fitness. The qingshi aspect of this product is as indicated as low fat.
Qingshi Fish Sausages, produced by Kaihan Food Co., Ltd. (Fujian). This product is mainly qingshi, due to its main raw material: fish.
Qinyuanxiang Qingshi Coarse Grain Bun Slice by Qinyuanxiang Food Co., Ltd. (Shanxi). This product is a modern version of a traditional Chinese home snack: sliced steamed buns. It touts its qingshi credentials because it is made from coarse grains.
Jiuxiu Pixian Fermented Bean Paste, by a company called Chaodian Industrial Co., based in Chongqing in the south west of China. Pixian is a county near Chongqing famous for a spicy fermented bean paste called douban). This product is said to be low in salt and contain no starch, fat, or artificial colours.
With the exception of the second company, all of the above-listed manufacturers are relatively small companies founded recently. This does not mean older, more established food manufacturers in China are less interested in the qingshi trend, but incorporating the term in the actual name of a product is a marketing strategy largely used by newer businesses.
The concept of qingshi as reflected in these products goes further than simply meaning foods are low in fat, sugar or salt. A number of other ingredients that have been generally regarded as healthy, like coarse grains, fruits and fish (as an alternative animal protein for meat) are also regarded as giving a food qingshi credentials.
Only one product, number three in the list, also refers to healthy living in general. The company behind the product, Qingshi Buluo Food Co., has been founded as a manufacturer of foods for people who frequent gyms. The name of company and the fact that it was founded in 2018 fit the broader profile of Chinese companies focusing on qingshi: young enterprises, specialising in foods for people with a healthy lifestyle.
That said, the term ‘low fat’ has already caught on in China and is widely adopted. The first major move to low-fat versions of mainstream products took place in the instant noodle industry, when producers one by one changed from deep frying to microwave drying. As the consumption of instant noodles is enormous (try find a Chinese who does not consume instant noodles at all), this alone had a tremendous impact on the fat intake of a considerable part of the Chinese population.
The situation is quite different for salt. Salt is the world’s major taste enhancer and east Asians are addicted to it. According to the Chinese government’s public nutrition policy, daily salt intake should not exceed five grams. However, the current intake in China is 10.5 grams. More than a quarter of the Chinese population suffers from hypertension.
A number of soy sauce producers have launched low-salt versions. This strategy can be compared with that of non-fried instant noodles, as soy sauce is also a product that can be found in virtually all Chinese households.
Elsewhere, from a search on China’s top online shop Jingdong with the term ‘low salt’, two categories stand out in the results: pickled vegetables (these are traditionally very salty, as they are consumed with the relatively bland rice congee) … and dried and instant noodles.
And as for ‘low sugar’? China has become the world’s largest market for low-calorie sweeteners and also the main production region of most of them. However, beyond low-sugar chewing gum, there are very finished, packaged foods consumers can buy using the phrase ‘low-sugar’.
The ‘low sugar’ part of qingshi remains a part of the trend that manufacturers have yet to capitalise on. A market for low-sugar yogurt and yogurt-related products could emerge, as Chinese like yoghurt and like it sweet. However, for reasons unclear, no manufacturer has launched a yogurt with alternative sweeteners in China.
How can international food brands look to capitalise on Chinese interest in qingshi? Aside from yogurt, other categories that come to mind are snack bars and even breakfast cereals.
The latter is becoming more popular in China anyway and cereals marketed as qingshi would likely give a boost to sales.