Do novel foods reflect an individualisation trend in Chinese culture?

Chinese demographers estimate that China will have 92 mln singles in 2021

Yili Dairy, China’s top dairy brand (and second food brand in 2014), based in the capital of Inner Mongolia, Huhhot, has launched remarkable marketing campaigns for some of its popular products. Mengniu, located in the same city, has followed suit.

Oat milk

Breakfast milk is; another member of the expanding Chinese family of formulated dairy products. Yili has entered this market with Oat Milk.

The phenomenon breakfast milk is a product of the increasing of the pace of life in China. From the beginning of the Chinese nation to very recent times, three hot meals a day were sacred in China. Gobbling down a sandwich on your way to work, a familiar sight in my home region, would abhor any Chinese. That thing with the sandwich is still rare in China, but the quick ready-made breakfast is emerging.

The ad for Oat Milk shows Taiwanese singer Eddy Peng drinking (well, at least one end of the straw is in his mouth and the other in a carton of Oat Milk) striking a masculine pose. The text introduces him as a nanshen ‘male god’. Although Chinese women are just as attracted to males like this as their sisters in any other part of the world, such direct sexual remarks are rather un-Chinese. And I am not talking about post 1949 China. Han Chinese are usually rather reserved about this type of emotions.

Eddy

The text adds that male gods are busy chasing their ideals, but impeded by the hardship of work. I have translated the Chinese word ouxiang ‘icon’ here as ideal. It alludes that Peng is the male icon of many Chinese men, but also an object of worship for most women.

The Oat Milk slogan is: four special functions:

OatMilk

Overtime Miracle

Travel Mate

Slimming Success

Ideal Snack

Overtime has entered China already a while ago. China is one of the few nations the constitution of which includes the right to rest for all citizens. However, overtime now seems to be more normal than in many Western countries. What Yili seems to be suggesting is that its Oat Milk can be used to replace the meal that a proper employer would provide to staff members who agree to overtime. A carton of milk with chunks of oat floating in it, that you can consume while continuing to work, would until recently never be accepted. Now, the marketers of Yili seem to believe that this suggestion will no longer elicit protests.

The Chinese term lütu banlü has been coined after kafei banlü Coffee Mate. However, the latter is a powder that is much easier (and again quicker) to use than liquid coffee creamer. Oat Milk is a liquid that you are advised through this ad to carry with you while travelling. A quick bite/sip on the road. Once more, this suggested use is a replacement of the meal that Chinese travellers would usually not be willing to skip. Chinese travellers board a train heavily packed, not with clothes, but food and drinks to consume while chatting with their companions and enjoying the landscape.

Both functions seem to indicate that the pace of life is accelerating in China. One of the cultural rituals affect most strongly by this development is that of eating three warm meals a day.

The oat fibre in Oat Milk is said to help keeping your waist slim. That by itself would not be much more than an empty promise, but the picture of a man Eddy Peng makes it real. Drink Yili Oat Milk and look like Eddy Peng.

The word ‘snack’ in my translation of the final term refers to the Chinese concept of lingshi. It literally means ‘fragmentary food’, food that you can eat any time between meals. When you look at the scope of what is regarded as lingshi by Chinese it seems to be basically identical to xiuxian shipinleisure food’, about which I have devoted an entire post in this blog. Lingshi then seems to be a more colloquial term, while xiuxian shipin is used in a more commercial context. Why it is called ideal seems obvious: as you are snacking anyway, you might as well do it on healthy food. However, I wonder if people would be willing to pack a relatively heavy carton of beverage instead of that pack of melon seeds, preserved plums or other traditional snacks.

Regardless whether Yili’s Oat Milk will be a success or a failure, its ad already is making history.

So, what’s in it? Here is the ingredients list:

Fresh milk, water, crystal sugar, oat grains, oat meal, Vit. A, Vit. D3, iron (fe edta), zinc, food additives (microcrystalline cellulose, CMC, gellan gum, carrageenan, monoglyceride,sucrose ester, sodium bicarbonate), food flavour.

So it is not completely natural, but we would not have expected it to be to begin with.

In the course of 2018, Yili has launched another oat milk, this time flavoured with coconut, marketed under the Guliduo (‘Lots of Cereals’) brand. It is said be made of Vietnamese coconut, carefully selected milk and Australian oat.

You Yoghurt

Yili has hired the services of another Tainwanese star, Jack Chou, to advertise for one of its yoghurt ranges: You Yoghurt (you means ‘best’). Jack Chou is shown sitting in a director’s chair, shouting ‘I want You’. The scene is derived from the TV program Voice of China.

YiliYouAd

Note that the makers of this ad assume that the intended audience have a command of English sound enough to recognise the pun. The deeper reference to the old American military posters telling young American men that ‘Uncle Sam wants you’ will escape the attention of most of them, though.

Expressing love through French fries

Early 2020, McDonald’s contracted the young superstar Jackson Yee, another male young god, not as their icon, but as their ‘spokesperson (daiyanren)’ for its advertisements. Af first sight, it seemed like yet another good looking young guy trying to sell food. However, some of the ads are quite funny, although I’m not sure if they were designed to be funny. My favourite is the ad for Mickey D’s famous French fries, which includes the slogan: ‘every single fry tastes of love‘.

Winter Olympics

Yili is one of the first Chinese food companies to respond to Beijing’s winning of the Winter Olympics in 2022. The company has launched the following commercial:

YiliOlymp

The text reads: ‘I have a seven-year appointment with the Olympic Games‘. And again we see the emerging individualism in this frame. The lonely icehockey player, instead of a team and the use of ‘I’ instead of ‘we’.

It is fascinating to see how a traditional state owned enterprise is able to reinvent itself to fit into the 21st Century. According to the Rabobank survey, Yili now ranks among the world’s 20 largest dairy companies.

Yoghurt icecream

Mengniu, China’s second largest dairy company, has recently launched one of China’s first yoghurt icecreams, marketed under the Dilan brand. The company started the promotion campaign with handing out samples for free to white collar workers in Beijing’s major commercial buildings. Dilan’s ads also indicate that the product is geared to that market segment: the individualist young professionals focused on their careers.

DailanYoghIce

Ambrosial

Yili’s has launched another innovative marketing campaign for its latest range of formulated dairy products, marketed under the brand name Ambrosial, in early 2020. This product’s ads can be divided in three types. The first is linking the brand with famous athletes, singers or movie stars.

The second type tries to link the brand to several symbols of modern life.

The third is more abstract, linking the brand to a number of goods pointing at good taste and healthy living and a human arm grasping a bottle of Ambrosial.

Ingredients:

Fresh milk, crystal sugar, whey protein powder, addives (acetylated distarch phosphate, pectin, agar, diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono(di)glycerides, gellan, food flavours), lactobacillus bulgaricus, streptococcus thermophilus.

Single-portion milk

Here we see a trend towards individualisation expressed in the packaging as well. Some Chinese hate milk, a few like it, and many drink a glass a day for its healthy image. If there is only one milk drinker in a household of, say, four, milk can easily spoil before finishing your 1 litre bottle or UHT pack. Xiajin (Ningxia) has launched a 243 ml bottle of milk to solve this problem in 2019. It is interesting to note that it is not one of the top dairy processors like Yili, Mengniu or Bright that first launch milk in individual portions, but Xiajin, that has been a good second tier dairy company for several decades.

Tea for one

A group of friends chatting for hours around a table with not much more than a pot of tea and a tray of melon seeds is still a very common sight in China. However, the first brand of tea presented in small bags for a single cup has appeared on the market. The term ‘independent’ in ad for this Chicory and Gardenia Tea by Qiandaohu (Hangzhou, Zhejiang) leaves nothing to the imagination.

Male vs Female

Yet another product of Yili is a lactic acid beverage branded Changyi that is marketed as being beneficial to the ‘male spirit’ (nanshen). Most of Yili’s new ads introduced above use male bodies as icons for position various dairy products. This product takes this trend one step further by directly referring to the male spirit.

Changyi

Mengniu has launched a sweetened milk, Tianxiaohai, that comes in separate female (pink) and male (blue) packagings

MnFemPack  MnMalePack

However, the ingredients are exactly the same; no gender-related formulation.

Fresh milk (>= 80%), sugar, additives (sucrose ester, monoglyceride, carrageenan), flavour

Uni-president has launched a series of flavoured consisting of two flavours in 2020. The packaging of both includes the phrase ‘his & hers’. However, although it is not indicated which flavour is his and which hers, one pack is blue and the other red, consistent with the cross-cultural mainstream bias that ‘blue is for boys’ and ‘pink is for girls’.

No sharing with others

Specialists in national culture all agree that Chinese culture is collectivist, placing the group’s interests above that of the individual. This trait of Chinese culture has left a huge mark on the Chinese practice of eating and drinking, in which sharing is a key concept. A Chinese meal is typically eaten around a round table with all dishes placed in the middle, for all participants to share. An now, in 2016, Yili launches this ad.

YiliWangpai

The ad is for Weikezi Chocolate Milk and the boy is saying: ‘Weikezi is delicious, no way I’m going to share it with you’. That statement sounds outrageously un-Chinese. So, is this a sign that young Chinese are becoming more individualist, or is this ad perhaps meant to provoke? I am sure it will make more than few Chinese eyebrows rise.

The ultimate individualisation: one person hot pot

Hot pot is a hot item in China. Nothing beats a group of people around a table throwing chunks of meat, vegetables, bean curd, mushrooms, or virtually any other fresh ingredient in a pot with boiling water and fishing them up when they are cooked. Hot pot is the ultimate communitarian food for a communitarian nation like the Chinese. Even a European fondue is hard to imagine to enjoy on your own, right? Well, be prepared to see this fact shattered by exactly those extremely communitarian Chinese. The past year has witnessed the launching of a number of one-person instant hot pots.

On the outside they look like a big instant noodle cups. Inside you will find a variety of ingredients, like the classic hot pot. Just heat it in the microwave, open it, and enjoy . . . on your own. Some brands are even packed in self-heating packagings. Squeezing the pack will create a chemical reaction that will heat up your hot pot, so you even lose the microwave. I have collated pictures of a couple of the instant hot pots currently on the market. How does it taste? Probably like most instant foods. Is it fun? Not more than eating instant noodles, or instant congee, certainly not as fun as enjoying hot pot with a group of friends or your relatives.

   

Single dog noodles

Early 2018, entrepreneur Zeng Ruilu founded Single Dog, a company producing potato crisps and similar snacks in single portions, geared to the growing group single Chinese. This company launched a range of single portions instant noodles in 2019. Smart readers will say: ‘aren’t all instant noodles made for one person to eat?’. You are right, of course, but Single Noodles (Danshenliang) still caught on. While Chinese singles used to be single for specific reasons (like a shy nature), more and more Chinese remain single for a while by choice. Those people like to confirm this by snacking on food that is specially made for them.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

Protein drinks – the Chinese alternative for dairy

In previous blogs on dairy (traditional dairy, formulated dairy), I have pointed out that in spite of the rapid development of this industry in China, the taste of milk is still inhibiting for most Chinese. Especially the formulated products are meant to address this problem by creating a host of products that deliver the nutrition of milk, while disguising the creamy flavour that so many Chinese still find hard to get used to.

However, there is an alternative group of products that have a nutrition profile more or less like milk, but lack the problematic flavour, because it is plant based: protein drinks. While soy-based drinks have made considerable progress in Europe recently, as life style products, they have been popular in China for ages.

Traditional products like soybean milk have appeared in various modernised versions, and other protein drinks from almonds, peanuts, or coconuts have been added. Their popularity is evident from the large variety of products available in Chinese supermarkets. The total turnover for protein drinks in 2019 was RMB 53.690 bln, and is expected to rise with 2.7% per year until 2024.

The main technical problem to crack in these products is maintaining a proper emulsion. Protein gel is combined with an oil-in-water emulsion, which results in a non-heatstable liquid, which can only be countered with a mix of emulsifiers. Most recipes use sucrose ester, combined with monoglyceride, alginates, etc.

Let’s have a look at the most representative types, according to source.

Soybeans

Soybean milk is a traditional product in China. The earliest records of it date from the West Han period (2nd Cent. B.C.).

The process requires soybeans with a sufficient water content (10% – 14%). After the hulls have been removed, the beans are pressed and water is added. In the modern production process, a chelating agent like EDTA is added for stabilisation. The raw soy milk is cooked for about 10 minutes. After centrifuging, nutrients like fat, sugar, or vitamins and minerals (e.g. calcium to create the perfect alternative for milk) can be added. Flavours can be added too, either to strengthen the typical soy flavour, or adding new flavours, typically those of fruits.

China’s top producer of soybean milk is Weiwei, located in Xuzhou (Jiangsu). The company’s main product is instant soybean milk, which make it the most convenient of the protein beverages introduced in this blog. The other drinks are only available in liquid form.

Image

Soybean milk is so popular in China, that KFC has decided to add it to their breakfast choices in their Chinese outlets.

KFCsoy

Weiwei continued on this development by launching soybean milk in a bottle that resembles the classic Coca Cola bottle late 2017, even stronger suggesting that soybean milk can be consumed as a healthy alternative for soft drinks.

Another recent innovation by Weiwei is launching a range of canned soybean milk with various flavours, including coffee.

Almonds

Almond milk is not really an alternative for dairy, as milk is used as an ingredient. The recipe I consulted for this blog lists almonds and Chinese yam (shanyao) as the main ingredients and milk and honey as auxiliary ingredients.

The almonds are roasted, crushed and cooked with the milk and yam. The honey is added after the milk starts boiling.

Almond milk has been made popular in China by Lulu, a company based in Chengde (Hebei). The typical thin cans of Lulu have been on the market for more than two decades, as an alternative for milk, as well as a drink for those who cannot drink alcohol during a banquet. Lulu has accumulated a turnover of RMB 1.772 billion during the first 9 months of 2019; up 5.88%.

It is thicker than soybean milk and quite sweet. One Dutch friend called it ‘liquid marzipan’ after his first sip. With ups and downs, Lulu is still a serious player in this market.

Image

Lulu’s turnover started to slip in 2017 and the company is trying to recoup market share by launching special protein beverages for children, like Xiao Lulu (‘Littel Lulu’).

Coconuts

Coconut milk will not be a new product for most readers. It is a traditional product of Southeast Asia, and that is the region from which it gradually conquered China. Those with 1.5-2% fat content have been very popular in China for many years, and the market continues to grow. The top producer of coconut milk in China is Yedao (literally: ‘coconut island’), located in the tropical island province Hainan.

Coconut milk is pressed from the flesh of unripe coconuts. Only some water and sugar are added.

Like Lulu’s almond milk, Yedao’s canned coconut milk quickly appeared in Chinese restaurants as the drink for drivers and other people who were unable to drink alcohol, but wanted something with a more stimulating taste than water or chemical laden soft drinks.

CoconuM

Walnuts

Walnut milk is made from walnuts and water. Walnuts are ascribed a number of medicinal properties, which are prominent in the marketing stories of the various manufacturers. Unlike the protein drinks introduced above, there is not ‘leading player’ in this market yet. Still, a National Quality Standard (GB/T 31325-2014) has been promulgated for walnut milk in on Dec. 5, 2014.

Image

A top producer of walnut milk is Six Walnuts. It generated a net profit of RMB 7.459 billion in 2019.

An interesting development is that one Chinese coffee maker (Hogood) has launched a new type of coffee creamer made from walnut milk, marketed as Walnut 007.

Peanuts

Peanut milk, like the almond variety, is using the real thing as an ingredient. It is made from peanuts and milk, and even more than almond milk, peanut milk is more peanut-flavoured milk, like the ginger milk introduced in an earlier blog. It enriches the already nutritional milk with linoleic and arachidonic acid. And it covers the creamy taste of milk with a soft peanut flavour.

Yinlu in Xiamen (Fujian) is a major producer of peanut milk. The company is now under the control of Nestlé, which makes Nestlé the first foreign player in this market. Recently, Nestlé has announced that it is looking at updating its Yinlu peanut milk brand to satisfy consumers who prefer fewer additives and alternative ingredients.

Image

Yinlu has launched two products with multiple raw materials in 2017: red beans + peanuts and Job’s tears + peanuts.

The growing popularity of protein beverage has attracted the attention of the recently revived beverage brand Beibingyang. The company has launched a peanut drink of its own trying to create synergy between its well known brand name (including the polar bear logo) and the current interest in protein beverages.

Hickory

The latest addition to this growing range of beverage is the hickory protein drink from Tiannie Hickory Food Co., Ltd. (Guangyuan, Sichuan). The product has been launched in 2014. The raw materials are grown locally.

Tiannie

Sesame

Nanfang Food (Nanning, Guangxi) produces black Heiheiru brand sesame milk, a protein drink made from black sesame. Its ingredients list:

Water, black sesame, sugar, milk powder, starch, peanuts, sodium caseinate, sodium tri-polyphosphate, xanthan, CMC, carrageenan, monoglyceride, sucrose ester

This list shows that Heiheiru is not really a ‘sesame drink’, but a compound protein drink flavoured with black sesame. It partly owes its popularity to the colour black that is associated with a high anti-oxidant content.

Rice

Dashu Life Sciences (Jilin), in cooperation with Jiangnan University, has developed a new type of rice protein beverage under the Shangshanyuan (Sunshary) brand.

Oats

The oat drink Oatly has been introduced in China in the course of 2018 and is gaining popularity in coffee shops, e.g. Starbucks, as a vegetarian alternative for cow milk. Oatly’s introduction to China was aided by one of its Chinese investors: China Resources. Late 2019, Oatly had built up a presence in over 3400 outlets, including 2000 coffee shops and chains such as Pacific Coffee in China in first – and second-tier cities.

Yili Dairy (Huhhot, Inner Mongolia) has launched a range of oat milk drinks under the Zhixuan (‘vegetable choice’) brand in September 2020.

Hankou Factory Nr 2 (Wuhan) has launched a new drink combing oat milk and tea in 2020. In that way, the company was cashing in on two fads: protein beverages and milk tea.

At the end of September 2020, Shanghai-based oat milk start-up Oakidoki received funding of RMB 10 mln from Vision Plus Capital, two months after it was launched. Wang Xin, founder of Oakidoki, said the new funding will be used for marketing, research and development and recruitment. The firm has also collaborated with boutique coffee chain stores, creating more competition with international top plant-milk producers.

Compounds

Compound protein beverages have also appeared, like the walnut peanut milk produced by Taigeili in Chengdu (Sichuan). This company is known for innovative products like rose vinegar.

Image

This market is getting so lucrative, that even an ingredient manufacturer like Jiangsu Howbetter (specialised in food texture and premix technology for dairy, beverage, bakery, and ice-cream) has launched a new plant-based beverage prototype made from peanut, walnut, almond, hazelnut, pine nut, cashew nut, pecan, Australian macadamia nuts, and Hawaiian macadamia nuts, which it showcased on the Food Ingredients China 2019 trade fair.

Not so natural

Although these drinks are all marketed as healthy beverages (not health beverages, that is another category in China), the ingredients listed on the label of Hengyi Yinxue walnut beverage includes an impressive number of additives:

Water, walnut kernels, crystal sugar, additives (xanthan, polyglycerin fatty acid ester, sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium pyrophosphate, sodium d-isoascorbate, sodium dihydrogen phosphate), food flavour

This way of listing additives is presecribed by Chinese law. Interestingly, flavours are not regarded as additives in this regulation and therefore not listed within the brackets.

Foreign interest

The Reignwood Group, the Chinese distributer of Red Bull, has acquired a 25% stake in Vita Coco, a US producer of coconut juice, in July 2014. In China, through Vita Coco’s own feet on the street along with the approximately 2000 employees of Red Bull China, the brand will be available about 130,000 stores soon.

Minutemaid has launched its own range of protein beverage in China mid 2017.

The dairy empire strikes back

China’s top dairy companies have adopted an ‘if you can’t beat them’ strategy. Mengniu and Yili, the top 2, have launched their own protein beverages recently. Yili announced its plans during a public meeting at the end of 2014. Mengniu has entered into a joint venture with US-based WhiteWave Foods Company, a leading consumer packaged food and beverage company in North America and Europe early 2013. The jv is marketing WhiteWave’s Silk brand protein drinks in China. This product is common in the US and is an affiliate of Alpro, a brand in Europe, though its positioning in China is quite unique. With its convergence of flavours, Silk’s positioning as a 100% natural solution, targeting those that are lactose intolerant, could spell success for Silk in China, especially as consumers become ever more sceptical regarding the origin, nutrition, safety and environmental impact of the food and beverages they buy.

SilkAlmond

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

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.