While nutraceuticals is a term that is still regarded as new in the Western world, as well as in China, the concept of pharmaceutical functionality of food has been part of Chinese culture for several centuries. In this column, Peter Peverelli reviews the background and current state of nutraceuticals and functional foods in China.
An interesting difference between the concepts of food functionality in China and the West is that in a case of illness, the Chinese seek to supplement the organ that is regarded as the locus of the illness. People from the West, often attribute an ailment to the lack of a certain nutrient and subsequently add that nutrient to different foods. For example, male impotency is located in the kidneys in Chinese medicine, so Chinese food manufacturers may seek to fortify food with extracts of traditional medicinal herbs that 'nourish the kidneys' and market it to men with potency problems. Their Western counterparts may offer a similar food, but then fortified with zinc, vitamin E, etc. Actually, the Chinese are quite eclectic in this respect, and often combine traditional medicine with Western nutritional concepts.
The influence of traditional Chinese concepts can lead to products that would be extremely difficult to market in the West. For example, some time ago a small article was published announcing that a University in Dalian, a large port city in Northeast China, had developed a functional beverage for people such as workers using pneumatic drills, who had to work in a noisy environment. This beverage is fortified with herbal extracts that claim to alleviate the stress caused by the constant, irritating noise. Such an article might bring smiles to the faces of most Western readers, but the inventors were deadly serious.
The Chinese are susceptible to fashions from abroad. Trends from the West are adopted by the Chinese almost instantly. PUFAs and probiotics, for example, appeared in Chinese food publications as soon as they started to become hot topics in Western journals and functional foods containing such substances became available soon after. Although many of the necessary ingredients are imported, the time between the introduction of a new functional food concept and the start of its local production is becoming shorter and shorter. An interesting case could be observed during the latest Food Ingredients China Exhibition, last April. While DSM was introducing its naturally fermented beta-carotene for the first time in China, its Chinese counterpart, Xingchen, was also exhibiting its competitive product in a large booth.
China is especially open to trends from Japan, an important market for functional foods and nutraceuticals and close, geographically as well as culturally, to China. A good example of such a trend is bifidus bacteria. The Chinese have picked up on this fashion with great zeal and have already managed to develop it to new heights. One company specialising in the production of bifidus bacteria, Baolingbao, has started to market a number of products formulated for different applications, like bifidus bacteria for soya sauce.
The financial side of these new marketing strategies is of course an important aspect. Although no specific statistics are available for the Chinese functional food market yet, one recent article reported that the total sales of Chinese health-related foods was RMB 3 billion ($36 million) in 1997, which had risen to RMB 4.5 billion ($54 million) in 2000. These figures could further rise to RMB 13 billion ($158 million) by 2005.
Consultant to the Chinese Food Industry
Email: [email protected]