just-food’s China columnist Peter Peverelli illustrates how the more rapid pace of life in China is shaking up the nation’s breakfast habits.

The aspect of Chinese food consumption changing most rapidly is breakfast. 

At first glance, that may seem unusual, as, the world over, the meal people find hardest to change is breakfast. Most people are willing to try new things but, when you are still waking up, you prefer to do so with familiar breakfast items.

So, what is different in China? In Europe (on the Continent, at least) a traditional breakfast is easy to prepare. Bread is purchased baked and sliced by the baker. Cheese can also be bought in convenient slices. Other stuff can be spread on the bread; quick and easy.

Not so for traditional breakfast in China. Congee or noodles have to be cooked. Pickled vegetables, meat and eggs need to be sliced or chopped and placed on the table on small plates.

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By GlobalData

However, driven by economic growth, the pace of life has increased dramatically in China – which can be seen in the workplace. Chinese managers no longer accept employees coming in one by one at their convenience. Work starts at 09:00 and you better be there on time.

This shift in mindset has even added a word to modern Chinese vocabulary: shangbanzu, which quite literally translates as ‘working tribe’ but more specifically refers to office workers, the huge number of relatively young Chinese rushing to work in the morning.

And this shift in mindset has led to changes to the items Chinese are willing to eat for breakfast. This trend applies even more to young college graduates on their first job, who earn just enough to rent a small space of their own. For that segment, pouring boiling water over a pack of instant noodles is already too time-consuming. Their preferred breakfast is something you can pick from the cupboard, rip open and eat.

Nine out of ten products meeting this trend are variations on bread, a food that has not been a staple of the traditional Chinese diet but which has been quickly catching on among the country’s urban middle class during the past 20 years, leading to the nation’s baking sector growing by 10% a year.

According to figures from data and analytics company GlobalData, the total market for the sub-category of bread and rolls – covering packaged/industrial products and artisan lines – stood at US$4.36bn in 2017. The morning-goods sub-category – again encompassing packaged and artisan items – was worth $497m. 

A range of products are touted on the Chinese microblog platform Weibo as bread-based items to eat in the morning.

Longsheng Food Co., based in the eastern province of Anhui, is offering a product called Jiebata (yes, that sounds like ciabatta), which is a range of sandwiches, marketed as a complete breakfast. One variety, the carrot version, includes carrots, milk and eggs. One serving consists of two layers of bread with a soft creamy substance in between.

Henan Hongjia Food Co., based 430 miles further north in Henan, has developed a kind of hot dog, a bun with a sausage in the middle. It is marketed as a one-bite breakfast. Its brand name, Changjianmian, literally means ‘sausage sees flour’ but it sounds like the Chinese expression for ‘seeing each other often’, giving the product one foot in the present and another firmly fixed in Chinese collective culture.

Guangdong Jiashili Food Group, one of China’s top biscuit producers, is marketing breakfast biscuits, doing business in a market segment alongside Mondelez International, which launched its Belvita brand in China in 2015. Jiashili’s products are actually sold under the name ‘breakfast biscuits’ and, like Mondelez, is targeting the breakfast occasion; remember there is no concept of ‘tea time’ or a ‘coffee break’ in China.

Meanwhile, Panpan Foods Group, based in the south-eastern province of Fujian, is offering slices of bread resembling Longsheng’s Jiebata. Panpan’s Ameria branded ‘dry cake’ has a texture more resembling bread than cake. The promotional text stresses the product’s ‘milky flavour’.

An interesting combination of Western bread and Chinese rice is Mr Mike’s purple rice bread. The rice used is a variety of rice produced in southern China and is said to be more nutritious than white rice. The brand name, Maike Xiansheng (or Mr Mike), suggests a western image for a product developed by Jiangsu-based Yipinxuan Food Factory Purple 

Bread-based items for breakfast is so hot the larger bakery companies cannot afford to miss the boat.

Dali Food Group, headquartered in Fujian and one of China’s top industrial bakeries, is following suit with a product of its own, two layers of toast with a dairy-based filling.

Another company in Fujian, Hongyi Food Co., has joined the race with bread filled with walnuts, raisins and cranberries. Again, each slice is packed separately. You can always slip one in your briefcase, to satisfy that pang of hunger between meals.

All these products can be purchased online (the preferred option for young consumers) and selected supermarkets. Products from the big players are for sale in most retail outlets.

What can overseas players learn from all these trends? The growing pace of life means Chinese consumers are demanding more convenient products – and the breakfast meal is feeling the impact. And breakfast is an opportunity for bakery players, even in a market where a lack of special tea or coffee breaks that are typical moments for consuming baked products in North America and Europe. Meanwhile, the breakfast biscuits offered by Jiashili and by Mondelez shows the range of products is very broad – and can echo items found in western markets.

In the case of bread-based products, manufacturers should make sure the products are relatively sweet, preferably with ingredients that add colour and a crunch or other more exciting mouthfeel.

Confectioners could also find an opening. It is possible to imagine chocolate with nuts and berries can be positioned as part of a filling breakfast. And if it is milk chocolate, you can add a glass of milk to your advertising materials, a symbol of nutrition in China, like Mr Mike is doing for its purple rice bread. Chocolate plus milk plus nuts plus berries: touted as a combination of nutrients to brave the commute to the office.