With Hong Kong playing host to the fourth Natural Products Expo Asia, Bruce Hoggard takes a look at how international companies are wooing the Asian market

With recent regional outbreaks and continued cases of bird flu, Streptococcus in pigs, heavy metal contamination in crops and malachite green in imported fish, more Asians are taking a personal interest in health and lifestyle choices. Concern with the sources and quality of food is higher than ever, driving the growth of the natural and organic products business in the region as Hong Kong and China, with newly developed organic certification systems, move in the same direction as Japan.

There were approximately 172 companies exhibiting at this year’s expo, with the greatest number coming from the United States (40), followed by Hong Kong (37), Korea (17), Japan (10), and Indonesia and China (8). There was only one company from the UK and no companies from Germany, Italy or Switzerland, the major players in the natural and organic products in Europe. The event organisers will need to address this shortcoming if the exposition is to extend its reputation as the premier event for the natural products industry in Asia.

The show focused on five different but synergistic areas, with products ranging from organic, natural and functional food to herbal medicines, nutraceuticals, dietary supplements, personal care products, natural home products and even pet products. A series of product lines were showcased in three special themed pavilions: the ‘natural home’, ‘meet the chef’ and the ‘Thai massage & spa salon’.

In the ‘meet the chef’ area, chefs gave practical demonstrations in the show kitchen, preparing healthy dishes with natural and organic ingredients. The ‘Thai massage & spa salon’ area was very popular with exhibitors and visitors as people took the opportunity to have the long hours massaged away.

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The conference portion of the exhibition remained its strongest component, offering numerous insights into the Asian market place and the latest regulatory, marketing and packaging developments for the food, supplements and personal care sectors.

The session on ‘organic market development and certification in Hong Kong’ delivered by Jonathan Wong, director of the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre, discussed the details of the newly developed organic certification system of the HKORC.

Prevention and cure

‘How to choose health foods’ was an interesting session delivered by Chang Chen, a Chinese medical practitioner. Chen looked at the diversity of health foods commercially available.

The talk was then divided into two sections: The first emphasised health food as a clinical performer related to several medical conditions and the physical needs at the early stages of recovery from illness, before and after surgery, or during pregnancy. The second part focused on the effectiveness of health foods, such as reishi mushroom (Ling Zhi), swallows’ nests, and different species of ginseng, and how the consumer can make the right choice according to their physical conditions, different seasonal climates and geographical location.

For companies interested in the Japanese market, the largest health food market in Asia, Nobuo Iwasawa, founder of Health Business Magazine, the leading publication for the health and nutrition industry in Japan, provided an overview of Japan’s regulations for health foods. This included the process and guidelines of FOSHU, Foods with Nutrient Function claims. The session confirmed Japan’s dominant market position in the Asian health food market, discussing its market size, the top players and the best selling products.

On a mission

How and why companies are created is seldom similar as each new startup offers has its own story. This is the case with Eden’s Natural Synergy, a healthy vegetarian food distributor located in Hong Kong. The company was established in 1991 by a group of Australian health food specialists from The Seventh-day Adventist Church. One of this organisation’s missions has been to “promote health through a good eating habit”, something it has been doing for the past 30 years for its own evangelists and medical officers who are vegetarian.

Newer products on offer included jumbo oat flakes from England, a black sesame paste from Japan and long grain brown rice from Italy. The company also provides canned foods, dried foods, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) and frozen foods – all made from soy or other vegetable protein. These meat substitutes resemble the texture and flavour of meat without using any animal ingredients. Choices available are aimed at the Asian palate and include a burger-style Teriyaki patty.

O store on show

As an indication of the growing popularity of healthy and organic food in Asia, Shanghai has opened its first all organic food market called O Store. The first company to open an organic specialty store in China, O Store was at the show promoting itself and its long-term organic food vision for Shanghai and China.

Carrying fresh produce and other items from more than 70 domestic organic food suppliers, O Store also imports organic products from many of the most reputable and respected names in the organic industry. Alongside the many organic products on the shelves, O Store also has a fresh in-house bakery and the Monterey Café where organic dishes are prepared daily. The store caters to an established and growing affluent consumer base in Shanghai who are concerned about their fitness, health, lifestyle and that of their children.

Thai presence

With Thailand’s attempt to develop greater export markets and trade in the region, it was interesting to see Kovic Kate International (Thailand) at the show promoting its series of food supplements, herbal extracts and spa products. The company’s supplementary foods are segmented into three categories: skin care, health care and, most popular, weight loss.

Another Thai company in attendance was PG&P, which was promoting hydrolysed rice. The company emphasised the value of the rice product in helping with various health issues including diabetes, cancer, asthma and allergies. Over half of the world’s population eat rice as a staple food and close to 90% of Asians eat rice on a daily basis. There are two main species, Asian and African, and within these, there are more than 120,000 varieties.

PG&P is marketing 19 variations on the rice theme, including brown (unpolished) rice, rice flour, rice bran, popped and flattened rice, fermented rice, rice panicle and rice straw. Each of these rice products offers a health benefit. Rice has long been used in traditional remedies. For example, rice panicle is traditionally made into a tonic for seriously ill people and burned rice from pots is used to relieve fevers and remove boils.

One of the new health trends in the “post carb era” is the Glycaemix Index (GI), the figure associated with how high a person’s blood glucose level will be when a particular food item is eaten. As with most indexes, the lower the GI number associated with the food item the better it is for you.

Glycaemic Index riding high

Originally developed in Australia and associated with the Australian food scientist and nutritionist Jennie Brand-Miller, Tefco, from the US, was at the show promoting its range of low GI products. Developed with diabetics in mind, the products are also promoted by Tefco for non-diabetics who may have other health concerns including obesity.

One product being promoted was Chana Dal Beans, a major player in the GI arena. Other products from the company included a healthy oat drink, a Coco-Whey Beta Glucan mixture and Rice-Fenu, which is a combination of rice bran and fenugreek extract.

Big Tree Farms, located in Bali, were marketing relatively simple products including sea salt, palm sugar, honey, several types of peppers and crisps from the seeds of the fruit from the wild Melinjo tree. However, the packaging of the sea salt is unique, being available in small and large coconuts. The coconuts are hand-carved and polished to reveal their incredible shell. They are then hinged with brass fittings and sealed with an embossed medallion of beeswax. The coconuts also come with a complete photo journey of the salt making process.

The Natural Products Expo Asia recognised the growing population of household pets in the region through the inclusion of the first exhibiting pet food company. Precise Pet Products from the US was at the show promoting its healthy food alternatives for both cats and dogs with seven choices of dog food and five choices for cats.

As has become customary with the last article of the year we look ahead to 2006 and the numerous organic and conventional food shows on the horizon. As usual, 2006 promises to be another busy year on the trade show circuit. Unable to attend all of these shows, companies can stay abreast of the new and innovative products introduced, as well as the changing market conditions, by reading the articles covering the shows.

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Several shows are only held every two years and given their importance in the food industry they are also listed below.

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In closing my family and I wish all our readers and their respective families a very Merry Christmas, a wonderful and safe holiday season and a very happy and prosperous new year.