A few decades ago, eating ceased only being a means to stay alive in the developed economies and gradually became a way of living well. Consumers in China have adopted this shift eagerly, partly because there has always been considerable overlap between food and medicine in the country’s culture.

An awareness of the health problems caused by overeating quickly evolved into the holistic notion of ‘light eating’. Recently, some Chinese consumers – those consumers marketeers would call ‘early adopters’ – have moved on to demand more from their food. They are looking for products that make you look good, not only in terms of kgs, but also help your body shape and even improve the condition of your skin.

The term ‘cosmetics food similar source (zhuang shi tong yuan)’ has recently started to emerge in Chinese media, inspired by the age-old term ‘medicine food similar source (yao shi tong yuan)’, directly referring to the overlap between medicine and food as an organic part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is also an indication that not only are food and pharma strongly intertwined in the minds of Chinese consumers but that there is a link to cosmetics as well. It refers to a more holistic view of the world, whereas Westerners prefer to keep various realms separate.

This embracing of the local medicinal tradition seems to be shaping a uniquely Chinese version of healthier eating, combining well-known nutrients like vitamins and minerals with traditional Chinese herbal extracts.

This column won’t present an exhaustive list of ingredients in this category but will introduce the most important one: ejiao, or donkey hide gelatine. Ejiao is gelatine obtained from the skin of the donkey by soaking and stewing. It is a hard gel that can be dissolved in hot water or alcohol to be used as a food ingredient or in beauty products such as face creams. According to TCM, it improves blood circulation, and is used as a blood tonic by people with anaemia. Consuming ejiao is also said to give you a healthier complexion.

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Other frequently-used TCM ingredients are red dates or goji berries that moisturise the complexion; mung beans and white fungus (said to detoxify the intestines and have an anti-aging effect) and black sesame seeds (said to keep your hair black, which is why, as a blonde gentleman, I will never eat that ingredient).

Adding TCM ingredients presents an opportunity for international suppliers with production facilities in China. In your home country, some ingredients may hit regulatory barriers, but the Chinese government has published a list of TCM herbs that are allowed as food ingredients and, so as long as you stick to that list, you are free to add them. In my July column I mentioned local versions of Snickers bars with sweet potato and black rice. You can just as easily add ejiao, goji berries or black sesame seeds (and adapt your marketing accordingly). It will sell.

An ingredient related to ejiao but with a more high-tech image is collagen. A number of foods enriched with collagen have recently appeared in China. Beijing-based Sanyuan Dairy has launched YO Collagen Yogurt. Each helping contains 1,250 mg of small-particle collagen imported from Germany (the foreign provenance is still regarded as a bonus). The two flavours, peach-lychee-jasmine and grape-pomegranate-rose, contain extra fibre in the form of chewable pulp. The protein content reaches 4.5g per pack, which is 65% higher than the Chinese national specifications for yogurt. Erythritol is used as sweetener instead of sugar.

Kellogg is looking to meet this trend as (some of) its breakfast cereals contain gelatine derived from collagen. Some of the US giant’s breakfast cereals that are marketed in China have the word ‘collagen’ printed in large characters on the pack. Few Westerners will be attracted by this but it sells in China. Just Food approached Kellogg to comment on its strategy for these products in China but the company had not returned requests for comment at the time of writing. The number of foods you could enrich with collagen is huge.

Another cosmetic ingredient that has become popular as a food ingredient in China is hyaluronic acid. Hardly a day goes by without an article about its properties. It is a common ingredient in skin care products. However, it is usually injected or used in topical creams. In China, it was approved as food ingredient in 2008 but food enriched with hyaluronic acid have only started appearing recently.

Bright Dairy (Shanghai) has developed a yogurt containing hyaluronic acid in cooperation with Bloomage Biotech (Shandong), a producer of cosmetic ingredients that can be used in food. The yogurt, launched this year, also contains collagen and cranberry extract. This is obviously an opportunity but, as China is quite unique in approving hyaluronic acid as a food ingredient, individual companies need to investigate the possibilities of launching special versions of their products with this ingredient for the Chinese market.

Meanwhile, happy people tend to look better than others. We now know that our gut is an important influential factor of our mood. Chinese food technologists and marketeers are therefore avidly designing and promoting food that is high in fibre. A recent study estimates the value of the Chinese market for dietary fibre at CNY4.41bn, according to the 21food.cn website.

An ingredient in this category that has become hot in China is chia seed. Several foods with chia seeds have been launched during the past year and a half. Grandma Qin, a producer of modern instant meals based on traditional Chinese recipes, makes an instant porridge with lotus root powder as the main ingredient, enriched with several fibrous nuts and fruits, including chia seeds. Chia is highlighted with, again, big characters on the packaging, indicating it is regarded as a main selling point. Other products of this type include mixed nuts with chia, breakfast cereals with chia and so on. Chia is said to contribute to gut health and thus to your body’s overall health. And chia seeds can be added to so many existing foods.

Finally, you can even cash in on this trend without altering your formulation or packaging. China’s successes during the 2021 Olympics have given food that makes you look good another boost. Chinese were not only interested in following their favourite athletes’ victories, but also their diets, which are believed to be a major driving force behind their successes.

The biggest success story in this respect is Golden Dragon Fish cooking oil that managed to get the position of designated cooking oil of the Chinese Olympic team. Without adding anything to their original products, this brand was recognised as the oil you need to become a sporty person almost instantly. If you want to sell a food that enhances vitality in China: hire a Chinese athlete to promote it.