Earlier this summer, Singapore paid host to Natural Products – Organic Asia 2005.  Despite the show’s title, there was less emphasis on organic principles, and a greater focus on health foods, such as nutraceuticals and functional foods. Wandering the exhibition halls was our reporter Bruce Hoggard, who now describes what he saw and tasted.


Singapore, the country, city and state at the end of the Malaya peninsula enjoys the glamour and prestige of hosting many international events as recently demonstrated by its hosting of the IOC to determine the winning city for the 2012 Summer Olympics.


The Singapore market with just over 4.5 million people is a “small” market in comparison to its neighbours in the region, including the 250 million people in Indonesia and the 1.3 billion people in China. Although small in population the market is still a vibrant and lucrative market for consumer products including food. Many Singaporeans are living a very fast pace of life rushing from one place to another and having quick meals without knowing what they are eating. Most meals are still unhealthy and high in cholesterol. However, with the increased education and standard of living Singapore has enjoyed in the past ten years, a segment of its population is also evolving and becoming more health conscience and concerned about a healthy life style. In amongst this are the growing natural and organic product trends.  In fact “the Haven” trade show is a natural outcome and evolution from the number of Singaporeans attending BioFach in Nuremberg and Tokyo and showing interest in the industry.


Natural Products – Organic Asia 2005, referred to, as “the Haven” was the second installment of this international exhibition and conference for the natural and organic industry. Held in Singapore from June 28th to 30th at the Singapore Expo site near Changi airport, this Exhibition was initially scheduled for November 2004.


The low number of participating companies, at just 90, whether a result of the date change or an indication of why the date was changed, resulted in the show site being less than half full. The largest participating group, as with most trade shows, was from the host country, Singapore. With 42 participants, Singapore companies had more then 3 times its next closest group of participants from Thailand (13), whose exhibitors were some of the more interesting, and China (11).


However, glaringly noticeable by their absence, given the strong organic movement and number of companies involved in the organic sector, were companies from Europe. There were no companies from Germany, the main European organic market, or from Italy and France, and only one from each of the United Kingdom and Switzerland. Again, the date change may have had an impact on this poor representation or companies are not yet prepared to invest in Singapore’s developing organic movement. This shortsighted approach to the Singapore market will mean companies from China and elsewhere in Asia will gain a foothold that European and North American organic companies may never be able to counter.


Nutraceuticals prove popular


With the show’s deficiency of the bigger organic food players from Europe and the United States, people looking for organic and natural food items were disappointed. Instead the show was filled with numerous companies promoting nutraceuticals, and health “foods” contained in pills and liquids. Although these types of healthy foods are a growing area of the healthy food/organic movement, the show’s organisers need to do a better job of persuading real food companies to participate in future years.


In Asian countries rice is the most popular staple in a family’s daily diet, even with the growing presence and influence of western fast food. In fact, rice is being added to many fastfood menus in Asia and elsewhere because of its growing popularity in all cultures. In fact, an example of rice being used in other fashions is Kikkoman’s rice shaped handheld bun used instead of the traditional bread buns to hold the “filling” of the person’s choice.


Rice as a dietary choice is also being welcomed in many other countries in the world. Recent studies in Asia indicate rice may have a long history of medicinal value, lowering high blood pressure, preventing some renal problem with kidney stones and diabetes. It is no wonder, given these facts, many of the companies at this year’s show were offering rice in one form or other.


One such exhibitor was Thai company Cal Intertrade. Reputed to be the “King of Rice and Beans in Thailand”, it specializes in Jasmine rice known for its distinctive fragrance, delicious flavour and tenderness. For readers familiar with rice, they will realize there are various types of rice and not all varieties are acceptable for use in preparing Asian meals. Intertrade exports a variety of brands including Sampao, 5 Stars Elephant, and Lucky Elephant.


However, the company’s uniqueness is three of its other rice products packed full of “health claims” which may be hard to publish and use in more regulated countries in Europe and North America.


Rice to cure all manner of ills


The Panjasub Herbal Rice is an instant health food made with unpolished brown rice, soya beans, pearl barley, lotus seed, sesame seed and mung bean. The company’s claims for this product are bold, stating it provides vital energy for better health, improves hoarse voice, loss of appetite, loss of excessive blood from menstruation, aids in giving birth, dealing with excessive sweating and weakness, dizziness, vertigo, edema, chronic nephritis, pain relief in the joints of elderly people and finally it also acts as a mild laxative.


Krayaku Herbal Rice also uses unpolished brown rice and mung bean, and in addition licorice extract and black sesame. This particular “functional health food supplement” provides vital energy to build healthier blood cells, prevent anemia and clean and increase elasticity of lung tissues to wash out toxic substances caused by air pollution and alleviated intestinal disorders caused unhygienic food preparation or food poisoning. It also reduces the critical phase of retaining high fever and relieves pains in arm and leg joints


Finally, the last of these miracle rice is Nopagout Herbal Rice. Also classified as an instant health food it is made from unpolished brown rice, soya beans and pearl barley. This functional health food supplement provides vital energy and is a beneficial source in relieving edema, joint pains and alleviates pain caused by Gout.


GMO free


New products are always interesting and at this year’s show’s new product shelf, produced by CAL Intertrade’s sister company in Singapore, were Yeo‘s Soychips. Ideal as party favours under various toppings or for just simply snacking, these Soychips come in four rather distinctive flavours appealing to Asian tastes.


The first interesting flavour is Mongolian Chicken, although not over powering it provides a subtle flavour providing a base for creative food preparation. The Garden Garlic and Ranch Barbecue choices are more appealing and recognisable flavours in the west while the final flavour, Exotic Paprika, will add zip to any party or gathering.


The Soychips are a source of high dietary fibre and contain no added MSG or preservatives. Another crucial factor, more so in Europe and Japan, when considering health foods, is that the Soychips are GMO free.


As the health food market expands and continues to grow from the fringe to mainstream, it also moves into the baby food market. The addition of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) into all types of baby formulas is becoming the expected norm and being promoted as a way to help babies, infants and children in their phases of early development. DHA is a polyunsaturated oil (omega-3 fatty acid), found in the human body, and is a building block for tissues in the brain and the retina of the eye.


Omega-3 and DHA/EPA, normally promoted in capsules and liquid form, of which there were numerous companies at the trade show promoting, has become the new additive to regular foods. This is an attempt to provide a healthier alternative and functional quality to ordinary foods, also a growing trend throughout the world.


Herbal health food for babies


Into this newly emerging market differentiation enters Nutricereal baby food, a herbal health food for babies and infants during their various levels of development through the first three years of their life. This company’s baby food formulas contain mixtures of coarse rice, soybean, pumpkin, black sesame, wax gourd and egg yolk. Not necessarily a combination appealing to adults, I was reassured it was a tasty and attractive food with babies.


With the strong presence of Thai companies at the Show, Heritage Snacks & Beverages, using various nut combinations, was promoting healthy, organic alternatives for desserts and snacking. The company’s first home-made-style Nut Walker cookie was an almond cookie with 33% real almond nuts. The second Nut Walker cookie was a cashew nut cookie, again made with 33% real cashew nuts. As with the first, the homegrown fresh nuts are roasted, ground and blended with wheat flour, egg and butter. However, each cookie’s real nutty taste and appeal is heightened with the addition of a split corresponding nut on the top of each cookie. Not overpowering for the avid nut lover, these cookies will definitely help reduce the cravings for nuts, and one will never be just enough.


A new produce shown at the show was Longan. This fruit, with an easily peeled cinnamon-coloured skin, reveals white flesh that is succulent, fragrant, and packed with energy and rich in sugar.  Longans contain Vitamin C, calcium, iron and phosphorus, plus many bio-acids that are good for a person’s skin.  Because of its high sugar content, Longans are also used as energy providers for people who are sick.


Although the Singapore show had a small number of exhibitors, there were still examples of companies that have realised the newest trend and direction in the organic sector is in the ready-to-eat, convenience market sector. One of these companies was Top Organic Products, also from Thailand. It introduced its new organic versions of its rice crackers and organic ready-to-eat meals at the show. Having recently been certified as organic, the ready-to-eat meals are available in frozen packing or retort packing.


The selection includes organic shrimp with red curry, organic shrimp with green curry, organic shrimp with tom yum. Each of these selections is available with or without rice, giving the consumer a choice depending on their own personal preferences and tastes. The main ingredients are made from organic rice, organic coconut milk and organic shrimp, which are certified by Bioagricert, Italy. For people who enjoy hotter curried foods the amount of rice served with the package maybe enough. However, for others, additional rice may need to be made to assist getting through the meal.


With China joining the WTO many Chinese companies have and are becoming more aware of product quality and product value. In fact, many Chinese companies are moving quickly to meet the required international business standards and become well-known international companies with stronger marketing and more product selections. This trend is also true in the food and agricultural industry, as a flourish of new organic companies and products continue to be introduced each year.


Prune-based


Many of the Chinese exhibitors at the show were promoting commodities or basic food items. However, Shantou Fuwei Fruits & Nuts Manufacturing, located in Guangdong, China, was also promoting a range of value-added organic jam products and a newer product called Fuwei Apple Chips, the first natural and non oil-fried food produced in China. 


With the support from the Prune Association of USA, Fuwei has become one of the biggest prune distributors in China and continues to grow and add various prune-based products, including its jams, to the market. The jams are available in prune, green prune, apple and kiwi, and are a great topping on bread or toast in the morning for breakfast.


In an attempt to improve the product series and increase product varieties, Fuwei has developed JoJo Gummy Jelly and Fuwei Fruity Soft Candies. Although good, these candies still get caught in between the teeth causing some aggravation and embarrassment if not caught before smiling. I suspect companies such as Haribo in Europe have little to be concerned about in the short term. However, given the Chinese growing ability to innovate in third and fourth generation products it may be a different story in the long term, especially given the growing collective sweet tooth of the Chinese consumers.


Keeping breath fresh


After walking a show for the day and tasting a variety of foods and beverage, some better than others, a person’s breath can take on a “life of its own” keeping people back some distance. However, to the rescue was Shantou, a company from China that has developed its own version of the fresh breath strips. These small pieces of ‘tape’ continue to gain popularity throughout North America and are driving the oral hygiene market. Packaged in a carrying case they instantly dissolve on the tongue releasing an intense burst of flavour designed to freshen breath. The compact dispenser is convenient and allows it to be used any time and anywhere. Shantou offered several varieties including sugar free, low calorie and these came in four flavours. For a “real kick” the super peppermint was over powering, while the regular flavoured peppermint was rather plain. The two best flavours were the strawberry peppermint and lemon peppermint. These respective fruit flavours provided a pleasant taste without the over powering peppermint and offer relief at the end of a date or prior to that important face-to-face meeting where first and lasting impressions are important.


The show revealed an interesting difference in the level of market development and perception of organics by the Singapore consumer. Unlike the trend in Europe and United States, where the prices of organic products are gradually being reduced, the Singapore consumer still perceives organic food products as being far more expensive. This is a result of minimal market penetration and the relative newness of the organic movement in Singapore. Many of the Singaporeans interviewed are however hopefully that in the near future and with improved technology and market awareness prices will come down.


With the completion of the show’s second year the organisers were pleased with several encouraging comments from the exhibitors regarding the quality contacts made at the show. However, the organisers must also realise they need to fill the halls with more of the major organic players from the European and North American markets. Without these organic food companies the show will never be a complete success and assist to educate the Singaporean consumers to realise the wide range and benefits of organic food alternatives.