One of the challenges for multinational food companies doing businesses in China is the cultural uniqueness of the world’s most populous country. But, well aware of the riches that could be tapped, the international food industry is developing flavours and health traditions that accommodate Chinese tastes, Wang Fangqing reports.

Some of the world’s largest food makers are tapping in to local tastes. At the end of January, the Chinese arm of Kraft Foods launched a whole-wheat line under its local biscuit brand Pacific. The new line came in three flavours: Chinese red date, black sesame seed and peanut.

Maggie Wang, research and development director for biscuit technology within Kraft’s China and Asia Pacific divisions, said the three flavours are the perfect match to consumer tastes.

“[The flavours] have long been taken as healthy, nutritious and delicious foods in China, which is totally in accordance with the health concept we want to express to our consumers through the biscuits,” she told just-food.

According to traditional Chinese herbology, red dates can boost energy and clean blood, while black sesame seeds and peanuts are good for kidneys. All the ingredients are strongly recommended by Chinese traditional medicine doctors, especially to be taken in the winter.

Wang says Kraft always taks into account traditional Chinese tastes when the company develops new products. “While Chinese consumers are open to innovations, they also adhere to tradition,” she explains. And the reward: targeting health-conscious Chinese female office workers, each 78g package of Kraft’s biscuits is priced at CNY3.8 (US$), almost twice as much as conventional biscuits.

In fact, combining flavours with the image of wellness has become a popular concept for food companies. Last August, Fujian-based local food company Fujian Gong Yuan Foods Co. introduced a corn-flavoured expanded snack, called Wu Gu Feng, which in English suggests a lifestyle of eating ‘coarse food’. Packaging images display the product’s ingredients, including black beans, red beans, green beans and corn, all strongly recommended as health foods by the Chinese media in recent years.
Last April, Shanghai-based Liwayway China Co., a subsidiary of Manila-based Liwayway Marketing Corp., launched its first wheat biscuit series Harvest under the brand Oishi, which features flavours such as sesame and green tea.
“With Chinese becoming more and more health-conscious, I think this combination will continue to be popular,” said Chen Shoudong, vice general manager at Liwayway China, adding the sales of the biscuits are “satisfying.”
In the dairy industry, this combination of local flavour and health traditions is also popular among yoghurt manufacturers. In early 2009, Wei Chuan Food Corp., a subsidiary of Tianjin-based, Taiwanese-owned Ting Hsin International Group, specialising in fruit juice and yoghurt, started to sell yoghurt that mixed flavours such as longan and lotus seeds, or Chinese red dates and tremella (a nutritious mushroom which was once enjoyed only by wealthy people in China).
According to research firm Euromonitor International, yoghurt producers will have to come up with more flavours to attract more consumers if they want benefit from the robust growth in yoghurt consumption, which has been triggered by the growing awareness of keeping fit amongst Chinese consumers.
Even soymilk producers have developed some new varieties when it comes to flavours. Hong Kong-based Vitasoy International Holdings, the leading soymilk manufacturer in China, is no stranger to flavour innovation. Last summer, it added jasmine and black beans to its existing long list of flavours, which also includes tarot and red beans.
Native Chinese flavours applied to sweet foods are more likely to be tied with health, said Faye Xia, manager of marketing and consumer insights for greater China at US-based International Flavours & Fragrance Inc (IFF), one of the world’s top flavour and fragrance producers.
“Food materials like grain, longan and tremella are all frequently used in traditional Chinese-style desserts as people believe they can help slow ageing, preserve beauty and stay healthy, so the combination is appealing to consumers,” she says.
Xia adds that the flavour of wolfberry (or Gojiberry), another traditional Chinese supplement called ‘gou qi’ in Chinese, is widely popular among its clients in China. “It has been applied to bakeries, confectioneries and dairy products,” she says.
However, Xia argues that, when it comes to salty snacks, “novelty is the key”.
Liwayway’s Chen agrees. “For salty foods, flavours are more about ‘interesting’ and not only limited to health,” he said.
In the past three years, both Liwayway and PepsiCo Foods (China) Co. have created Chinese-cuisine flavoured potato crisps under the brands Oishi and Lay’s. The featured flavours include grilled lake fish with Chinese onion, grilled mushroom, Peking duck and Sichuan spice.
Rival brand Pringles, a Procter & Gamble product which started local production in China in 2006, followed suit by adding its Shanghai crab flavour last year.
Localised savoury flavours, says IFF’s Xia, are typical Chinese tastes as they are generally based on the country’s nationally recognised ‘eight Chinese cuisines’, such as Beijing and Shanghai.
And Chinese crisps don’t have to be salty. In China, Lay’s has a special offer: sweet, fruity crisps for the local consumers. The flavours vary from the newly added kiwi, to lychee, the popular Chinese fruit.
While fruity flavours are widely acceptable in China, Chinese native fruit – such as lychee and the wonderfully-named yumberry – are also favoured by local consumers, says Xia.
However, she played down the notion that Chinese consumers have a sweet tooth. “Surprisingly, our research shows the Chinese have less tolerance to sweet tastes in bakery and confectionery products than people in other Asian countries, including Japan,” Xia explains.
Xia suggests that using a widely-accepted flavour should be important for launching a  nationally-distributed product, as China is a large country with different regional tastes.
“Usually people in north China prefer food to be salty, but people who live in the south prefer food to be fresh. In the east, people have more preference for sweet taste while spicy foods are popular in inland China,” she said.
Operating in mainland China for almost two decades, IFF has developed a full understanding of Chinese taste, Xia insists.
“We think China has a relatively stable taste profile. Consumers prefer things that they are familiar with. However, ethnic-featured flavours, including flavours of Chinese origin, always have a niche in the market,” she said.
And, given the size of the Chinese market, food manufacturers have a broad palette of flavours to play with to appeal to local palates.