February 27, 2006
Health and food have always been close companions in Chinese culture. Almost any food or ingredient has one or more functionalities, and it is deemed better to avoid illness by eating the right food at the right time, than curing it with medicine. There are even 'medicinal restaurants' in China, where you order food on the basis of your ailments.
The recent historiography of Chinese health food reflects this cultural trait. During the first health food vogue at the end of the 1980s, traditional tonics still made up the bulk of health foods. A genuine craze for health foods erupted during the late 1990s. At this stage, people no longer thought in terms of regular food and drinks fortified with health ingredients, but rather complete holistic health foods. Health foods and drinks became big business and the Chinese versions of snake oil were bound to appear as well.
Soon the market grew so chaotic that the government had to intervene. The number of producers of health foods decreased to less than a third in less than a year. The new regulatory environment allowed genuine manufacturers to recoup market share and gain a certain critical mass. Moreover, the market was gradually opened to foreign health products as well.
The new situation has also proved beneficial to R&D. China is rapidly becoming a major market for ingredients such as probiotics. Biotechnology is a popular study among Chinese students abroad, and now that most of them opt to return to their motherland after graduation, the Chinese pool of researchers may soon be one of the largest in the world.
An area in which traditional Chinese medicine and modern biotechnology are creating great synergy is the development of health foods and ingredients derived from fungi. Fungal polysaccharides are attributed a number of functions, and there is a huge market for these products with a high added value in China and other East and Southeast Asian countries.
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