The growing interest in healthy-eating among China’s consumers is not a new concept for the regular readers of this column. Covid-19 has not only intensified demand in – and accelerated the sales growth of – healthier products but, during the pandemic, the trend has spread to all foods and drinks – even to what Chinese marketers call ‘leisure food’, that is food eaten between meals to satisfy an appetite or to comfort oneself, but hardly a source of nutrition.

Consumers are increasingly looking for healthier snacks and there are opportunities for suppliers of better-for-you, or functional, confectionery across consumer age brackets.

China’s parents complain on social media that the health of their children has deteriorated. More than half of China’s “post-90s” population are said to have hair loss and poor eyesight. Forty per cent of them are said to be obese and another 30% are suffering from a decline in immunity. Parents measure this by observing their children using criteria from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), such as skin colour or the surface of their tongues. These concerns have led to increased interest in foods claiming to have enhanced nutritional properties and which are targeted at younger consumers.

Meanwhile, China’s older consumers now constitute a considerable market. Unlike the traditional Chinese elderly, the modern pensioners want to get as much out of life as their (grand)children. They want to dance, travel, dress well and eat even better. And they want food and drinks that are specially formulated for them.

Across age groups, a wide range of snack foods are now being viewed with a different frame of mind – from ‘should not harm health’ to ‘should enhance health’. On the other hand, already healthier food is also being looked at through another lens. No longer should such food be acceptable ‘as long as it is healthy’. Now, with functional foods are perceived more often as regular food, many Chinese consumers want healthy food to also be tasty.

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By GlobalData

The Chinese government allows for the fortification of some processed foods. In February, Beijing’s State Administration of Market Supervision issued the “formulation and technical requirements of health food products for record”, which altered rules governing the marketing of certain foods.

Now, for example, fruit jelly, a popular product (and not only among children), which used to be seen simply as confectionery, is allowed to be marketed as a healthier food. Before the new changes to the regulations, producers of fruit jelly were not allowed to add vitamins, minerals nor any other nutrients That’s changed, opening the door to manufacturers to market healthier versions fortified with various ingredients.

Yunnan Agricultural University was the first to develop a functional fruit jelly in cooperation with the Yunnan Highland Agricultural Industry Research Institute. They have used floral ingredients that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, have medicinal properties: rose, jasmine, chrysanthemum and osmanthus. Each cup of jelly contains fresh flower petals. The candy will be officially launched in June.

By moving away from tablets and capsules to foods like fruit jelly, functional products are becoming more like regular food. On the one hand, traditional health-food enterprises are looking for breakthroughs in product form to make their products more like regular food. On the other, conventional food and beverage businesses are also starting to wave a functional banner, trying to add “function” to ordinary foods.

Start-ups are looking to capitalise on the gradual expansion of the scope of functional food. Recently-launched soft candies said to be enriched with vitamin and minerals include: a DHA soft candy from Chinese firm Yangshengtang, a yeast zinc soft candy from local group Dear Boser, a probiotic soft candy under Amos Sweets’ Biobor brand and a collagen soft candy under Japanese firm Blippo’s Uha brand.

Some start-ups have attracted tens of millions of yuan of investment from venture capitalists. One company, Buffx, focuses on young people, and cooperates with institutions in developing what they say is fortified candy with medical functionality. The company’s products include a blueberry candy contain lutein, an ingredient said to help ease eye fatigue, as well as confectionery enhanced with vitamin C.

Meanwhile, larger firms, such as Angel Nutritech (a subsidiary of Chinese food-ingredients business Angel Yeast), Yingjili, Amway and SirioPharm, are active in the area of functional confectionery. Yichao Bio, the company behind the Minayo brand of nutritional gummies, is a long-standing company, previously known as Guangdong Fuyi Candy, established in 1987. The company’s regular gummies have already reached international retailers such as Walgreens and Watsons. It recently made headlines as the first Chinese company to launch sodium hyaluronate gummies.

In China, functional confectionery is a consumption trend driven by consumers across generations that demands convenient nutrition. China is one of the nations that officially support public nutrition, by, for example, dealing with nutritional deficiencies through fortified foods. Moreover, away from government-supported fortified products like flour, Chinese food companies have developed a broad range of fortified foods that include confectionery and biscuits. However, the new aspect of the current trend is no longer expressed in terms of nutrients (vitamin C) but in terms of functionality, with products launched by manufacturers claiming they can aid sleep, improve eyesight, and so on.

This trend will persist – and grow. In traditional Chinese medicine, there is a big overlap between food and pharma. When Chinese feel their joints hurting, they will buy food they know is good for their joints. The modern Chinese consumer will now also look for processed foods marketed with the functionality they need – and that increasingly includes confectionery.

There are many opportunities for international food companies. Take The Functional Chocolate Company, a US-based supplier of chocolate products. The company offers chocolate it says is formulated to assist with symptoms associated with menopause, offer relief from symptoms associated with PMS, or helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

Then there is Think Gum, a maker of chewing gum said to have functional properties and another firm based in the US. It offers products containing gingko biloba, guarana, vinpocetine and bacopa. On its website, the company says a peer-reviewed study “showed that students remembered 25% more when they chewed Think Gum compared to regular gum or no gum”. Taken at face value, that sounds like something all Chinese students, pressured to perform at top levels by their parents, need.

The product range of Italy-based functional chewing-gum supplier Gumd’e includes a gum with bromelain (a proteolytic enzyme from pineapple) and extracts of green tea and orthosiphon. These ingredients are said to promote the drainage of body fluids. Bromelain is an ingredient that is also said to be effective against cellulite.

However, your product does not have to contain exotic ingredients. Old-fashioned vitamins and minerals can still do the trick, as long as you adapt your marketing pitch.

Liga is a Dutch brand of healthy snacks aimed at children owned by Mondelez International. In the Netherlands, under the Liga brand, the US snacks giant sells a product called Milk Break that contains calcium, iron and vitamin B6.

Calcium and iron are regularly mentioned in Chinese literature on nutrient deficiencies in China. When marketed as good for your bones and helping prevent anaemia, it will not only sound good for younger children in China but will attract a much larger consumer segment.

Milk is seen in China as an important provider of nutrition and is placed second on the current Chinese food pyramid. Individually packed, it fits in any student’s backpack.

None of these brands are present in China. I wonder what is keeping them.