Regular readers of this column know by now about the big overlap between food and medicine in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). This tradition is very much alive, which is reflected in the strong support from the Chinese government for public nutrition.

One of the key facets of Beijing’s policies is the fortification of certain foods. A uniquely Chinese aspect is the nutrients added are not restricted to vitamins or minerals, but also include extracts from TCM. Moreover, consumers prefer such nutrients to be added to snack food that can be consumed between meals. Chinese usually home cook with fresh ingredients that already provide ample nutrition, so adding nutrients to convenience foods adds a nutritious image to what otherwise could be regarded as munching on empty calories. Snacking now is good for you.

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Against the backdrop of Covid-19, a number of Chinese manufacturers have this year launched products purporting to offer functional benefits. Looking at data from local business news site Tangjiukuaixun, we can see Be & Cheery, the Hangzhou-based direct-to-consumer snacks business acquired by PepsiCo earlier this year, recently launched its ‘Today Energy’ range of snack food, including high-protein chicken breast chunks, high-protein chicken meatballs, and high-fibre crackers, all positioned for the weight management segment.

In the dairy sector, Bright Dairy, one of China’s largest dairy processors, has rolled out a yoghurt for people who spend long hours sat at a screen. Marketed under the JCAN brand, the yogurt contains lutein ester and DHA as the core nutrients, matched with wild extracts from blueberries and black rice, to, the company says, help reduce the wear caused to eyes by screen light and help ease eye fatigue.

Another dairy company, Lepur Dairy, has launched a yogurt, marketed under the brand ‘Relax’, which purports to offer another functional benefit. Targeting lovers of meat and greasy food and who have digestive problems after eating and drinking, Lepur has developed a yogurt contains Bifidobacterium bifidum BB536, in order, the company says, to relieve constipation symptoms.

A slew of fortified foods launched in China this year claim to have cosmetic properties. They include (again) a yogurt, this time from Chengdu-based New Hope Dairy, marketed under the “Beauty Recipe” brand, which is aimed at female consumers and enriched with probiotics.

Further north and Shijiazhuang-based Junlebao Dairy has rolled out lactoferrin tablets, which lactoferrin and bird’s nest acid (sialic acid) as active ingredients, developed for children over three years old. The nests are not those of any bird but those made by sea swallows, with bird saliva as the main ingredient. TCM regards bird’s nest as good for the lungs, stomach, and kidneys. Research has claimed to show edible bird’s best has been shown to contribute to help skin repair.

Looking at China’s overall market for fortified foods, international brands operating in the country are rolling out products, though not as actively as many of their domestic competitors.

Mondelez International sells its Youguan biscuits, containing ten vitamins and minerals, in the country and they have become popular. Meanwhile, according to Hangzhou-based industry consultants, ChemLinked, fellow US snacks giant Hershey recently launched two new versions of its Cute Bear biscuits, which are positioned as healthy snacks for the children. One product is fortified with calcium, iron, and zinc.

One is, however, left wondering why more western companies have not launched fortified, functional foods. Covid-19 has increased the already existing demand and the authorities support food fortification.

The relative lack of products from international companies could be the result of pressure from the ‘clean label’ movement and corporate wariness of being accused of marketing foods loaded with additives in faraway markets.

For multinationals producing in China, co-branding, especially with a western supplier of nutrients that is also manufacturing in the country, may help. You are then not simply adding generic vitamin C, but vitamin C from a specific, local company.

The earliest international brand to experiment with TCM-enriched products was Lipton, with its tea enriched with extracts from chrysanthemum, honeysuckle and lily. The tea is named Qing Heng Cha, or ‘clearing balance tea’.

Few other multinationals have followed this example. It is difficult for a western company to access the world of TCM, but it may be worth the effort to look for a partnership with a suitable Chinese pharmaceutical company.

Moreover, if you have reservations about ingredients like honeysuckle, there are several TCM materials that are better known in other parts of the world. The common date (jujube) is also a medical herb in TCM. Dates are said to support the strength of bones, muscles and teeth. They benefit the nervous system and assist in alleviating stress, sleep disorders and anxiety. Chinese dates are high in antioxidants.

Nestlé appears to have noted this and has launched a red-date-flavoured oatmeal under the Nesvita brand. The product contains 400g of date powder per 1,000g of finished product. Date powder is an ingredient more sophisticated than a date, but less ‘additive-like’ than an extract.

Other Chinese medicinal herbs that may be easier to accept by western companies are goji, or seabuckthorn (shaji). Goji is well known internationally, but China is one of the main suppliers. So, why not add goji to products like breakfast cereals and biscuits sold in China?

Sea buckthorn is less common in western countries, but known in health food circles, with overseas companies importing the ingredient from China. The berry has a high content of vitamin C, about 15 times greater than oranges. The fruit also contains high contents of carotenoids, vitamin E, amino acids, dietary minerals, β-sitosterol and polyphenols. Sea buckthorn oil is a good source for omega-7 fatty acid. One should be able to use sea buckthorn instead of cranberries in almost any recipe.

The water chestnut is another less well-known Chinese product. Water chestnuts are rich in protein, dietary fibre, carotene, vitamin C and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium.

They mix well with various other ingredients but is a very good friend of meat. A mix of chopped water chestnut and chunks of any red meat not only provides nutrition, but also adds a crunchy bite. Manufacturers add many different things to cheese; why not to luncheon meat?

The list could also include several fungi, in particular the wooden ear. Try to imagine Spam, specially formulated for the Chinese market with crunchy bits of water chestnut and wooden ear fungus added. It would be a good way to make Chinese meat processors hit themselves in the head for not thinking of that themselves first.

Moreover, some of these products, even if originally formulated for the Chinese market, may also catch on at home.