Traditional Medicine Joins The Modern Age

Knowledge gathered from the ancient traditions of Chinese medicine is fuelling the development of modern functional products in China. Peter Peverelli analyses the latest ingredients and product trends in the Chinese market, where the public has long been aware of the links between health and food

It is common knowledge that functional foods as a notion dates back a long time in China. In fact, the overlap between food and medication is so great in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that we should understand the difference between the two as a sliding scale rather than two clearly distinct concepts. At one end of that imaginary scale, there is food savoured for pleasure because of its taste, smell and mouthfeel. At the other end are pharmaceuticals, taken to cure a specific disease. In between are many types of foods that are eaten for their taste and, simultaneously, for a nutritional function.

Such a function is often referred to in Chinese medicine as ?replenishing? (bu), as the food is perceived to alleviate a certain deficiency. One early Chinese medicinal handbook states: ?When the doctor has found the cause of a disease, he should first cure it with food and only if food does not cure, seek the help of medicine.? The cooking book sections of present-day Chinese book shops are not complete without a number of books on ?food medication? (shiliao), in which recipes can be found for stomach disorders, bad eyesight, flatus and other ailments. This concept is perfectly phrased in the ancient Chinese saying yi shi tong yuan—medicine and food share the same origin.

Regulations Take Hold
Due to a combination of this Chinese tradition and the recent rapid increase of the purchasing power of Chinese consumers, particularly among city dwellers, interest in functional foods and beverages has grown dramatically. The years before the turn of the century, in particular, saw a genuine boom in health foods (baojian shipin).

It is estimated that the market will further increase to $12.1 billion by 2005. The erratic behaviour of the market in recent years is attributed to a lack of regulations. As health food became regarded as a big money maker, a large number of inferior plants were built. Low-quality products gave health food a bad name and many consumers lost interest. To improve the situation, a set of strict regulations was promulgated in 2001. This combination of factors led to a clean-up of the market, which is reflected in the decreasing turnover of the industry. With better-quality regulations in action, we can expect to see the sector grow again, even though the expectations of the Chinese Health Food Association (CHFA) for 2005 may be a little too optimistic.

The CHFA also attributes the recent slowdown in the Chinese health food industry to the relatively large number of small enterprises. Of some 4,000 Chinese manufacturers of health foods, two thirds are small- or medium-sized enterprises. Moreover, two thirds of current Chinese health foods have as their main function relieving fatigue, enhancing the immune system or lowering cholesterol.

Three Main Categories
It is convenient to divide functional ingredients in China into three main categories:

  • Traditional Chinese medicinal herbs;
  • Internationally recognised functional ingredients;
  • Hybrids ? new functional ingredients derived from traditional medicinal herbs, using modern technology.

The first category can be regarded as an extension of the medical tradition, where the herb is moving away from the pharmaceutical end of the imaginary sliding scale to the food end. The second category has been directly adopted from the global market. It comprises vitamins, minerals, active herbal ingredients like gingko extract, and so on. The third category may very well be the most interesting the Chinese industry has to offer to the international functional foods industry. Chinese researchers are now using modern technology to discover and extract active ingredients from traditional Chinese medicines and develop them into commercial functional ingredients.

I will introduce these three categories by focusing on one typical example for each.

Traditional Functional Ingredients
The Chinese tradition is still very much alive. TCM has accumulated decades of experience in finding the active ingredients in medicinal herbs and transforming crude recipes into modern forms, such as pills, capsules and injections. Inspired by the growing interest in herbal functional ingredients in other parts of the world, Chinese pharmacologists have also started diverting some of their research to further processing these herbal medicines into functional foods ingredients.

Chinese medicine has discovered herbs that help the hair to retain its natural black colour
To take a concrete example, Chinese people regard black shiny hair as a sign of good health. Before modern hair colours were invented, Chinese medicine had discovered herbs that helped the hair to retain its natural black colour. One of the most noted of these is fleeceflower root ( Radix Polygoni multiflori or Heshouwu in Chinese). It contains 1.1 per cent anthraquinones, which are believed to be the source of its various therapeutic functions (it does more than just blacken hair). A company has already developed an instant fleeceflower root tea for easy consumption. And Chinese researchers are looking into the possibility of adding fleeceflower root extract to candy. A fleeceflower root shampoo is also available.

Global Influence
Because this category of functional ingredients is identical to the range of globally used ingredients, I will not introduce it substantially here and instead point out one particular area.

One of the main nutritional problems in China is calcium deficiency. Chinese nutritionists presume, as a rule of thumb, that the calcium intake of around a third of the Chinese population is less than the minimum daily requirement. The number of calcium supplements and calcium ingredients in China is huge and people take them liberally. The inhabitants of Shanghai alone spend about $60.5 million on calcium supplements per year; the national figure is estimated to be ten times that amount. Apart from supplements, calcium is added to almost all types of foods. There are high-calcium milks, noodles, biscuits, candy and flour, which usually contain other added minerals and vitamins as well.

Other supplements in high demand in China are iron, iodine (now obligatory in salt) and selenium.

Hybrids: Promise And Challenge
An important product group in this category is fungal polysaccharides. With an annual volume output of 5.7 million tonnes, China is the world?s largest producer of mushrooms. A number of mushrooms are used in Chinese medicines. Some of them, like lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum), are already starting to become known in the West. Extracts from various mushrooms, in particular those from xianggu (Lentinus edodes), are used as taste enhancers, but with modern extracting techniques, substances with much greater functionality can be obtained. These complex functional substances are generally named after their main ingredient—fungal polysaccharides. They also contain fractions of protein, minerals and other nutrients.

The functionality ascribed to these substances includes enhancing the immune system, inhibiting the growth of certain cancers and slowing down the ageing process. Fungal polysaccharides are interesting in a business sense as well. Table 1 shows typical prices (RMB/kg) of some lingzhi products.

No accurate statistics on production volumes are available as of yet. The number of manufacturers is growing in China, but there seems to be a gulf in quality between similar polysaccharide products offered by different suppliers.

The popularity of fungal polysaccharides as functional ingredients is growing in China. Remaining with our previous example, lingzhi-enriched beers, wines and teas have appeared on the market in China within the last six months. In Western countries, lingzhi-based supplements are already used by a small group of ?believers?. The big challenge to Chinese manufacturers of fungal polysaccharides is to develop Western markets for these functional ingredients as well.

Table 1: Prices for lingzhi products


Price (US $/kg)





Mycelium powder




Peter Peverelli is a consultant and founder of Eurasia Consult—a Dutch company specialised in the Chinese food ingredients market. Eurasia and Giract jointly publish a bi-monthly China food industry bulletin that includes a section on organic and functional foods. [email protected]
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