Top Chinese regions for various foods

It has been a while since I placed a post about the regional variation of food in China. That post focused on typical local produce and traditional dishes and snacks.

Today, I am posting some information about the regional distribution of the production of a few major product groups. There is a certain relation between that distribution and the information in the previous post, but also distinct discrepancies, linked to facts like the presence of a major producer, the location of large urban centres in a province, etc. There are also interesting differences between more traditional products and foods related to the modern life style. In other words, today’s post is a genuine ‘Chinese food and culture’ one.

I will illustrate the distribution in the form of tables indicating the top 3 production regions (provinces) of each product in terms of percentage of the total national volume of 2021. The total of those percentages is a good indication of the degree of concentration of that product.

Dairy

The dairy industry is traditionally concentrated in the norther half of China, which makes sense as dairy cows prefer a cooler climate. A consequence of this was that most Chinese in the south would drink milk reconstituted from milk powder. Recently, the production of fresh pasteurised or UHT milk has increased considerably in the major urban regions. Look at the differences in the distribution of milk powder and liquid milk production.

Milk powder 
Heilongjiang37.1
Shaanxi15.2
Inner Mongolia11.2
Total63.5
Liquid milk 
Hebei13.6
Inner Mongolia12.3
Shandong8.0
Total33.9

Heilongjiang, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia are all traditional dairy regions. Hebei as well, though much smaller. However, Hebei supplies dairy products to the large Beijing – Tianjin urban conglomerate, and is the home of some of the country’s top dairy processors.

Wheat

Although most Westerners still perceive Chinese as eating rice as a staple, the Northern Chinese traditionally eat wheat products. The most popular wheat product traditionally is flour. Chinese use it to make dumplings, mantou (steamed bread), noodles, and many other products at home. This does not always agree with the pace of life of the modern city dweller and even Chinese living in smaller towns do not want to spend so much time in the kitchen. This is reflected in the distribution of the flour and instant noodles.

Wheat flour 
Henan25.9
Shandong19.7
Hebei14.6
Total60.2
Instant noodles 
Henan20.5
Guangdong10.4
Tianjin6.7
Total37.6

Henan and Shandong together form China’s main wheat belt, hence Henan’s top position for both products. However, the production of instant noodles does not necessarily take place in those provinces. Guangdong and Tianjin are located in major urban regions (the Pearl River Delta and the Beijing – Tianjin region) and local production there makes distribution a lot easier.

Candy

Candy 
Fujian29.7
Guangdong21.8
Hubei10.7
Total62.1

China has a wide range of traditional sweets, but candy is a Western product. This is probably the reason that production is concentrated in the richer southern coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. These are also sugar cane regions. Hubei is an exception.

Alcoholic beverages

Alcoholic beverages 
Sichuan13.7
Shandong10.9
Guangdong9.3
Total34.0

Sichuan has been the top producer of traditional Chinese spirits (baijiu) for many years. Although beer and wine are growing in China, the big money makers are still the spirits. Shandong’s position is probably related to the availability of cereals, but it is also the home of Tsingtao Beer and is China’s oldest wine region. Guangdong’s third position is based on beer, which is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Pearl River Delta is one of China’s most affluent regions.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success

China’s silver hairs are challenging the single dogs

Old age has always been held in high regard in China. A special age was 60. The Chinese zodiac consists of 12 heavenly stems and five earthly branches, together forming a 60-year cycle. Once you had lived an entire cycle, you were an experienced person, to be treated with respect. The best cuts of meat were reserved for the elderly during a family dinner. There was also a downside. Old people were supposed to stay home as much as possible, because they were considered too weak to walk for more than 10 to 20 minutes, let alone to travel. Pampered by their loved ones, with the best of intentions, Chinese elderly aged more rapidly than was necessary.

This tradition continued until recently. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a pension system was installed, in which men would retire at 60 and women at 55. This is still intact, although in some professions, people can work a few years longer. The rationing of basic foods like cereals or milk, a system that was in operation until the early 1980s, included special care for the elderly in a household.

Due to a strict family planning policy introduced in 1970s, in which each couple was only allowed to have one child, the Chinese population was ageing rapidly. At the end of 2017, the official Chinese population count was approximately 1.39 billion. The age bracket of 60 years and higher was 17.3% – or 240.9 million people. That ratio had been rising consistently from 13.7% in 2011.

The State was still taking care of its elderly as it was obliged to do according to cultural tradition. Pensions increased following the increase in wages in China. Moreover, Chinese are thrifty. Most pensioners have bank deposits that in China still generate interest.

As a result, the Chinese elderly now constitute a considerable market, referred to as the Silver Hair (Yinfa) generation. Unlike the traditional elderly, the modern pensioners want to get as much out of life as their (grand)children. They want to dance, travel, dress well and eat even better. And they want food and drinks that are specially formulated for them.

Chinese consumers spend a relatively high part of their disposable income on food. In 2017 it was 29%. Overall per capita consumer spending in China in 2017 was RMB 18,322 (US$2,716). When we take 29% of that and multiply it with the country’s elderly population, we get a market value of close to RMB 1.3 trillion.

The Chinese government is supporting the development of food for senior citizens. A proposal for a National Standard for the formulation of food for the elderly was issued by the State National Health Commission (China’s former Ministry of Public Health) in September 2018. It contains information like the daily recommended intake of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients for the highest age bracket.

The food industry was one of the first to pick up this trend. A number of dairy brands started to advertise for products for elderly, like specially formulated milk and milk powder. Milk powder for middle-aged and old people by dairy giant Yili is reinforced with vitamins A, D, E, B2, B6 and C and the minerals phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc. The picture shows a powder based on colostrum.

SeaMild, China’s first domestic breakfast cereal, already introduced in my post on China’s breakfast revolution, also launched a special formulation for the elderly, with added vitamins A and D and calcium.

The kangaroo betrays the origin of the oat

Other manufacturers are advertising certain foods as especially suitable for senior citizens. A search with ‘elderly’ in the online shop Tmall results in a considerable number of bakery products that claim to be suitable for the older consumer. Many of these are sugar-free. This is based on the belief that elderly should eat less sugar. Sugar is still an important food ingredient in China. Most Chinese still believe those who have to work five days a week need sufficient energy and sugar is a good source of quick energy. Most milk powder produced in China is sweetened, while milk powder for the elderly is typically not.

However, there is an even larger market in which the elderly are the top consumer segment: health foods and supplements. This is rooted in the Chinese tradition. Traditional Chinese medicine refers to many medicines as ‘supplementing’ the diseased body. The modern age has changed the intended function of supplements from keeping the body healthy to making it fit to continue leading an active life after retirement.

A handful of capsules, Omega-3 to slow down ageing, gingko to enhance your cognitive faculty and calcium for stronger bones is becoming a common part of the breakfast ritual of the modern Chinese pensioner. According to e-marketplace 21Food, the turnover of the Chinese health food market (incl. supplements based on Chinese and Western medicine) was RMB 237.6 billion in 2017 and is expected to exceed RMB 20 trillion by 2023.

Nongfu Spring, China’s top producer of bottled water, has launched Lithium Water in 2022. It is said to lower blood pressure and nurture the nervous system of the elderly.

As I am getting older myself, I will follow these developments closely and update this post regularly.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success