China: the world’s biggest ice cream market

The ice cream market in China has witnessed steady growth over the past years. In 2021, the country’s ice cream industry was valued at RMB 160 billion, with a growth rate of 8.84%. The market is expected to reach RMB 275.19 by 2027.

Chinese invention

Ice cream is believed to have been invented in China, but it’s taken more than 2,000 years for the Asian powerhouse to warm up to the frosty dessert. Their version of ice cream was made from a soft paste of tender overcooked rice, combined with spices and milk and then packed in snow to solidify. It probably was more of a gritty ice milk and less like today’s smooth ice cream.

Although popular among the nobility, the difficulty of storing ice made these treats prohibitively expensive for commoners. It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that ordinary people gained access to chilled treats. A 12th century memoir mentions a wide variety of chilled delicacies, including marinated plum water, coconut wine, and kumquat snow bubbles. It was also during this time that ice porridge, osmanthus shaved ice, etc. Marco Polo also made note of “milk ice,” a slushy mix of jam and milk that melted in the mouth. This was probably due to the fact that Marco Polo entered China during the Mongolian period. Unlike the Chinese, Mongolians consume dairy products on a daily basis.

When Chinese started living in Europe for studying or acquiring technical knowledge, the returned to their mother land with stories about sweet chilled delicacies. It is no surprise that the first modern ice cream was served in Shanghai, the region with an early and strong Western influence. The following picture shows an ice cream parlour in Shanghai during the 1930s.

In 1927, the American merchant A.P. Henningsen opened the Henningsen Produce Company in Shanghai and began making ice cream bars. In 1948, the factory was sold to what later became the Shanghai Yimin No. 1 Food Factory, which continues to produce blocks and cups of Neapolitan and regular vanilla ice cream today.

China is now the world’s biggest ice cream market. China has produced 2,214,000 mt of ice cream in 2021; up 5.91%.

Hybrid loan word

The Chinese word for this cold treat so loved worldwide is an interesting combination of a Chinese stem and a loan word. Bing is the Chinese word for ‘ice’. The jiling part has entered Mandarin from Cantonese, where it is pronounced something like ‘keeling’ or ‘keelam’, which is a local rendering of the English word ‘cream’.

One third of all ice cream bought globally is consumed in China, which became the largest ice cream market in the world in 2014, beating the US by a lick with USD 11.4 bn in sales compared with USD 11.2 bn.

Chinese people spent 54% more on ice cream in 2014 than they did five years earlier, while the US market managed a more tepid 6.6% growth. However, Americans retained their crown as the most gluttonous ice cream consumers in the world, consuming 18.4 litres of the dairy dessert per capita in a year – more than four times more than the average Chinese person’s annual intake.

Rising incomes are driving the growth in China’s ice cream market, helped by the country’s increasingly developed retail infrastructure and facilities for storing and supplying “cool cargo” such as fresh produce, frozen foods and pharmaceutical drugs.

The pace of development, coupled with the immensity of the population, is having an increasing impact on the Chinese ice cream market. However, the vast array of locally produced, low-price brands present a challenge for global ice cream giants looking to develop there. Top Chinese dairy company Mengniu recently launched China’s first yoghurt ice cream.


Just two non-Chinese companies make the list of the country’s 10 most popular ice cream brands. Unilever, which owns Wall’s and Ben & Jerry’s, is the fourth biggest company in China with around 3% of the market, while Nestlé holds 1%.

The value of the Chinese ice cream market in 2018 was RMB 123.937 billion and is expected to exceed RMB 160 billion by 2021.

An interesting spin-off of the COVID-19 epidemic was a surge in ice cream consumption, even during the coldest period of year. A survey reported an 18% year-on-year growth in ice cream consumption during the Jan 25-Feb 7 period and a further jump to 37% in the next fortnight, when COVID-19 and quarantines peaked.

Regional production

The following table shows the production of ice cream in China in 2017, broken down in major administrative region.

Region mt
National 3,783,321
Henan 596,858
Guangdong 525,317
Jilin 325,367
Hubei 319,049
Sichuan 261,499
Guangxi 210,840
Hunan 194,380
Hebei 173,731
Beijing 155,946
Liaoning 132,678
Shaanxi 132,064
Inner Mongolia 112,137
Jiangxi 90,538
Guizhou 87,176
Anhui 77,032
Zhejiang 73,389
Tianjin 72,683
Heilongjiang 71,494
Shandong 68,827
Shanghai 32,300
Xinjiang 29,590
Yunnan 15,841
Jiangsu 15,701
Fujian 8,884

As is the case with many statistics like these, it is useful to also look at the total figure of the cities Beijing and Tianjin and Hebei province, that are geographically one region. The Chinese government is currently conceiving a development plan to (re)integrate those regions. The total volume for ‘Greater Hebei’ would then be 402,360, making it China’s 3rd ice cream region.

Local flavours

Ice cream makers have adopted the products they market in China to the Chinese palate. Most Nestlé Ice cream has a different flavor than in its Western markets. Not as rich or sweet. For the most part at a Chinese Buffet you can find the typical frozen Ice Cream sections for scooping: chocolate, milk/vanilla, strawberry. Then you have red bean (see photo), taro, green tea, sesame seed, green bean, ginger or red date. There is a plethora of fruits in China like longan, lychee, durian, etc., which can all be used to flavour ice cream. Smaller local companies try to experiment with odd flavours, like: ‘sweet green pea’ and ‘tomato-strawberry’ popsicles, to lure consumers away from the major brands.


Innovative flavours

A number of local players has started experimenting with flavours inspired by traditional Chinese cuisine. Wufeng introduced a spicy chocolate flavoured ice cream called Mengxiaola in 2016. Moreover, an ice cream store called Global has squid ink flavour and other unique flavours from across the world. Yolk ice cream can be found in Bonus, a Chinese ice cream store in Shanghai. These are all newly invented flavours and consumers are keen on trying them. On a widely used restaurants review and recommendation app called Dianping, Global scored 8.3 on a scale from 1 to 10 in terms of its flavours, which is a pretty high mark.

Agreeing symbolism

Fonterra’s Tip Top ice cream started to be sold on trial through Tmall in June 2016. one of China’s leading e-commerce providers, operated by Alibaba Group. Distribution will be handled by specialist frozen products distributor Zhuhai Ice Technology. It is still too early to report on the launch’s success, but I expect that Chinese consumers will be attracted by the icecream shown this picture, as the tiger is a symbol of strength and energy in Chinese culture.


Artisan involvement

The Chinese ice cream market is now so developed, that it is drawing the interest of international chefs. French chef Gerard Taurin, a pastry chef from Normandy, offered his latest creation at Beijing Galeries Lafayette in June 2015. Most of his ice cream is made with unusual, but very Chinese, ingredients, such as jasmine, goji berries, ginger and Sichuan peppers. Taurin’s selection comprises 10 flavours, including black sesame, tapioca pearl, hawthorn fruit, millet, jujube, cinnamon and eucalyptus. His ingredients are inspired by his travels to Beijing, Hebei, Shanxi and Sichuan provinces. He has shared his ice cream with people on the Great Wall, in the Forbidden City and in Beijing’s hutong alleyways to see how Chinese consumers react to his creations.


Memory lane

All these innovative products have pushed away older ice creams that used to be produced in the early days of the PRC. This has created a craving among older consumers for flavours from the good old days. I have reported on the return of old brands in previous posts. One local company in Heilongjiang province has launched Dongbei Daban ice cream,playing the nostalgia card to promote its ice cream. Dongbei uses 1980s style packaging to wrap the same simple shaped cones designed from that era. For older customers, this brings back memories of their childhood.


In a comparable move, China’s oldest soda drink brand Beibingyang launched an ice cream popsicle of its own in 2020: Brow Sugar Pearl Double Stick ice cream.

A related trend that started during COVID-19 time is the national(ist) trend (guochao), a nostalgic trend reviving traditional Chinese symbols. Haägen-Dasz followed suit early 2022 by launching a box of ice cream of various flavours packed as a box of Mahyong stones.

Less sugar, less fat, healthier ingredients

Considering that China has the largest occurrence of diabetes in the world and that obesity is also on the increase, an increasing number of people are calling for healthy or low-fat diets, which facilitates the creation of new ice cream types. Noticeably, frozen yogurt has also become a popular choice in China. The probiotics found in frozen yogurt help conserve some of the nutritional value in ice cream, which is conducive to maintaining beauty, slimming, and digestion. Another example is the “one egg” ice cream introduced by Deshi in 2016. The special ‘’egg + oats’’ ingredients drew a significant amount of attention. Astoundingly, the average daily sales volume of “one egg’’ (see photo) was 2 million in Northeast China in the beginning of 2017.

Moutai + Mengniu = baijiu + milk = ice cream

A different development, for some people perhaps less healthy, is that China’s top distiller Moutai and dairy company Mengniu launched three flavours of prepackaged ice cream in May 2022. The three flavours-plum, vanilla and milk-come in small-sized tubs of 75 grams each, are spiked with 2% alcohol. With this move, Moutai hopes to approach more young people. In spite of some improvements, baijiu still has an ‘old men’s drink’ image.

DIY experience

As Chinese are putting more focus on experience as opposed to the food itself, ice cream is no longer just seen as a mere treat, but as a product of a modern life style. In traditional Chinese mind-sets, eating very cold food is perceived as adverse to health. However, the considerable impact of Western ice cream has changed perceptions. Nowadays, DIY experience ice cream stores is a new strategy to cater to the requirement of customers. Nestlé, Yili , and the Japanese brand Meiji have together invested over RMB 1 billion for developing new ice cream projects in 2016 to win more shares on the market. In May 2017, Magnum reopened its DIY experience shop called “Pleasure Store” in K11 Shopping and Art Center, Shanghai for the third time, which rekindled the enthusiasm of many ice cream lovers. In other cities like Nanjing, Beijing, Chengdu, Pleasure Store also left footprints in the busiest commercial districts like respectively Jinmaohui , Sanlitun and Taiguli in the last two years. The DIY experience does not only endow ice cream with higher value, but also strengthens the ice cream brand and customers relationship.

Prée: extremely tasty and expensive

The best evidence of the money (urban) Chinese are willing to pay for high-end icecream is Prée that opened its doors in Shanghai’s expensive entertainment quarter Xintiandi. This new high-end ice cream lounge claims to use “smart technology” and alleged recipies from “a very low profile three-star Michelin chef”. The cream gets made fresh on site, with black truffles, bourbon, roasted cherries, and other pieces of luxury. The name is said to have been derived from a popular ice cream shop owner in a small Swiss town, on a street called Ai Prée. The owner, this mystery Michelin man, only uses traditional recipes combined with advanced ice-cream technology, the PacoJet. With prices ranging from RMB 42 to 88 for a dressed up ones-scoop cup, it is the most expensive icecream parlour in China, but the customers are raving about the experience. Prée opened a subsidiary in Hangzhou mid 2018.

Trade fair

Ice cream is now big business in China and in particular so for the suppliers of a broad range of ingredients: flavours, sweeteners, emulsifiers, thickeners, etc. This generates a more than enough critical mass for a dedicated trade fair. CICE 2015 – The 11th China International Ice Cream Industry Exhibition will be held in Beijing, April 16-18, 2015. Here, I will only copy the ingredients part of the published scope of this exhibition: specific herbs, flavors and fragrance for ice cream, compound dairy stabilizer for ice cream, natural coloring materials, diet coloring materials, sweetening substances, lactic acid bacteria, specialized & condensed milk essence, special ice cream protein powder & bean powder, other supplements include potato powder, malt essence, fresh cream, dried cheese element, primary dairy products, dairy purification powder, natural fruit powder, chocolate plate, coffee bean, coffee powder, coco fat substitute, nuts, dried fruit.

Downs too – between all the ups

Rising rents and lower profits have forced Haagen-Dazs to close stores in second- and third-tier cities in China in 2015 and 2016 amid a slowdown in the ice-cream market mainly due to a lack of innovation and its inability to keep pace with demand from increasingly sophisticated Chinese consumers. Many Chinese consumers perceive Haagen-Dazs as overpriced. To quote one media article:

‘Two egg-size scoops of Haagen-Dazs icecream costs me RMB 60. I get more value for less by eating two eggs

However, the brand has 380 stores in 84 cities in the country, despite the challenges at markets in second and third tier cities in the country. The company reports it still maintains strong growth in large cities. Revenues in Shanghai and Beijing grew 16% and 13% respectively in June 2016, and it opened more than 60 new stores as well in 2015. Insiders believe that the slowdown is partly due to rising rental and labour costs, which have made it become more conservative regarding expansion. Haagen-Dazs also faces intense competition from many other food service players. Many cafes and coffee shops outperformed Haagen-Dazs thanks to their sophisticated dining environment and rich product availability.

Challenging flavours for the coming year(s)

The authoritative magazine for the Chinese flavour industry ‘Domestic and Overseas Aromachemical Information (Guoneiwai Xianghua Xinxi)’ of June 2016 carries an interesting article on possible new ice cream flavours, based on ideas collected from all over the globe. I will list the flavours mentioned here.

Bacon flavour

Ice cream flavoured with a tincture of bacon, adding a little caramel, to obtain a proper salty-sweet balance.

Beer flavour

An idea from Ireland, reported best in combination with dark chocolate.

Chili flavour

Chili and chocolate already has become an accepted combination, so why not try it in ice cream? Some Mexicans in the US flavour their ice cream with Tabasco. Perhaps Laoganma can get involved in this project.

Celery flavour

The origin of the flavour is closer: Japan. The taste sensation of celery ice cream is reported to be close to that of wasabi.

Garlic ice cream

I have actually tasted this one of my favourite eateries in Amsterdam: the Garlic Queen. It is also a must-eat during the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Chinese are big garlic eaters, so garlic ice cream should have a market there.

TCM ice cream

Last but certainly not least, Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes a number of herbs that could be used in ice cream. No one would object to turning such a delicacy into a health food.

Brand alliance

An interesting product is White Rabbit ice cream, i.e. ice cream flavoured like the famous White Rabbit candy. It is a very Chinese way of trying to create synergy from co-branding.

These ideas provide a rare insight in what Chinese food technologists are thinking about developing new types of ice cream. I will keep you informed about which of these flavours will be turned into a commercial product.

Russian ice cream diplomacy

Russian ice cream has been rapidly gaining popularity in China during the past couple of years. Particularly in vogue are the products of IceBerry and sold in Qing-Feng Steamed Buns (mantou) Shops.

The photo shows a freezer containing the ice creams was labelled “Russia’s national gift”-a phrase which refers to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who brought a few boxes of that as gift for his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping when they met on the side lines of the G20 Hangzhou Summit in east China’s Zhejiang Province. Some Chinese media are referring to this as ‘ice cream diplomacy”.

The ice cream is priced between RMB 6 to 30, and each store sells an average of 300 ice creams a day. According to Roman Lola, the CEO of IceBerry, the company plans to export 500 mt of ice cream to China in 2017. It will not be an easy trip for the ice cream to travel from Russia to China, as the chilly dessert needs to be moved within a temperature-controlled supply chain. “Compared to high-end ice cream brands in Europe and the US, the Russian ice cream has an obviously benefit on price,” said Wang Xianzhe, a company manager focusing on Russian food imports in China. “The good quality and affordable price, let alone President Putin’s advertising effect, all support the Russian ice cream catching on in China.” IceBerry’s ice cream is reportedly made from high quality milk from the Ural and contains no preservatives or other artificial additives. The Russian export of ice cream to China in 2017 was worth USD 2.7 mln; up 13%.

Ice cream from space

Shanghai Space Food Co., Ltd. has acquired the license to produce and sell Astronaut Ice Cream in China. It is basic ice cream in a number of flavours that is said to be similar to ice cream prepared for consumption by American astronauts. It is supposed to be on the market early 2020.


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


Cheese in China – a gargantuan challenge

Most Chinese believe that cheese smells like a kitchen rag, but there definitely is a future for cheese in China.

First of all, you should know that most of the Chinese do not like cheese, or at least the typical cheeses Westerners eat every day. Indeed they think it smells horrible and find hard cheeses such as Gruyere or Emmental outright disgusting. In 2017, the per-capita consumption of cheese in China was 0.1 kg a year, while it was 2.4 kg in Japan, 2.8 kg in South Korea and 18.6 kg in Europe. The value of the Chinese cheese market in 2019 was RMB 6.55 billion; up 12%.

A remarkable news item of the first quarter of 2020 was that a survey showed that home cooking during the COVID-19 lockdown caused a 32% increase in cheese consumption in China. The extraordinary period apparently trigger Chinese to do extraordinary things.

More and more Chinese people would like to try new things and to taste imported products, as is attested in many of the posts in this blog. This also includes cheese, especially in first-tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. However, almost all cheese consumed by Chinese is processed, as this removes some of the most problematic properties (texture and odour). Reliable cheese-related statistics about China are notorious hard to get. According to a usually reliable Chinese soure, the country has produced 27,000 mt of cheese in 2016; 10,000 mt made from domestic raw milk and the remaining 17,000 mt being processed imported cheese. The OECD-FAO and USDA statistics are considerably higher, but I suspect that those figures include some yoghurt, which by some producers, in particular in the South, is named suanrulao ‘sour yoghurt’.


Government support

Chinese Vice Agriculture Minister Yu Kangzhen stated on Dec. 13, 2017, speaking at an event to encourage cheese consumption in schools, that efforts should be made to develop dry dairy products like cheese to improve dairy product structure and boost the dairy industry. Chang Yi, chairman of Beijing Sanyuan Food (see below), said at the event that China’s cheese consumption could grow by more than tenfold in future, and that he expected the cheese industry to maintain annual growth of 20% in the next five years.


While domestic production is growing, most cheese consumed in China is imported. China imported 108,300 mt of cheese in 2018, 2.8 times the volume of 2011.

Region share (%)
New Zealand 42.2
Australia 27.2
USA 18.6

The old world is obviously lagging behind, which is again a result of the Chinese dislike of unprocessed cheese.

Mozzarella is a major item in the list of imported cheese. Fonterra has recently opened a cheese plant in Australia to better supply the Chinese pizza market. According to a Fonterra spokesperson, already half of the Chinese pizzas are topped with mozzarella from Fonterra.  Mengniu and its partner Arla have launched mozzarella in 2018.

China is lowering its cheese tariffs from 12% to 8%, effective from December 1, 2017. This will certainly boost the sales of imported cheese.

Distribution Channels

93% in supermarkets and hypermarkets
4.8% in small independent grocers
1.9% in other food retailers
0.3% small outlets like hotels and upscale restaurants targeting expatriates

The supermarket is the no.1 distribution channel, because it is absolutely necessary to maintain the cold chain for cheese. Many small grocers cannot provide this quality service. With the development of the Internet and new ways of consumption, it is now possible to buy your cheese online.

Imports are still rising significantly. China has imported 16,446.9 mt of cheese during the first 4 months of 2017; up 41.25%.

Drivers for demand

Demand for cheese is driven by two factors: Chinese consumers looking for high quality dairy products and safe products prefer major western brands. Lifestyles are moving towards European standards of consumption.

The tastes of Chinese regarding cheese will develop gradually. Traditionally Chinese food is served with several dishes. And unlike us, Chinese don’t eat cold meal. However, pizza has made extremely popular in China after the arrival of Pizza Hut in the Middle Kingdom. Its success has inspired many Chinese entrepreneurs to venture into Italian restaurants, and cheese is an inalienable ingredient of Italian cuisine.


Main brands

The site Manufacturing News has published the following list of China’s top 10 cheese brands of 2015

1 Yili
2 Bright
3 Suki
4 Milkana
5 Anchor
6 Mengniu
7 La Vache qui Rit
8 Sanyuan
9 Arla
10 Tala Eji

Half of these are indeed domestic companies, but most of them import bulk cheese and further process it into processed cheese in various shapes and flavours.

The oldest domestic cheese producer is Sanyuan (Beijing). It imported a Danish cheese production line in 1985, mainly to service the foreign diplomatic community in the Chinese capital. Sanyuan still produces this cheese under the Beijing Cheese (Beijing Ganlao) brand. It now has a capacity of 10,000 mt p.a.

Ingredients: fresh milk, non-fat milk powder, salt, calcium chlorate, rennet, lysozyme, Lactococcus lactis cremoris, Lactococcus lactis diacetyl, Leuconostoc mesenteroides

Strikingly, most domestic companies that actually produce cheese in China are small, often privately owned, enterprises. There is Qishi (Inner Mongolia), China’s first producer of Mozzarella, but the most interesting case is no doubt Le Fromager de Pekin, a company set up by a Chinese, Liu Yang, who learned making cheese in France. Liu spent 7 years in France studying the language, business administration and cheese making. Upon his return to China in 2007, he stumbled through careers in translation and IT sales before opening Le Fromager de Pekin, which sells about 5300 pounds of cheese a year. Although Liu’s mission is to promote cheese to fellow Chinese, almost all of his clients are expatriates living in Beijing. Still, he’s convinced that will change. Watch this video report about his activities.

Case study: Yellow Valley: Gouda as only a Dutchman can make it

When Marc de Ruiter’s Yellow Valley business opened up in 2004, it was the first fair trade Gouda cheese producer in China. Known by almost half the expat population in Beijing. Here is a video impression from 2009.

Yellow Valley is located near Taiyuan (Shanxi). It is a small production facility on the premises of a dairy farm. Here, Marc de Ruiter, a Dutch agriculturist, produces his original Gouda cheeses. He is supported by two full-time employees – one cheese maker and one who handles marketing and sales. Two part-time employees take care of the online sales activities via China’s e-commerce platforms. The small Gouda cheese making business grew more successful over the years and the Yellow Valley products were widely known in China’s largest cities. After China was hit by the melamine milk scandal, Yellow Valley had to close down, like many small dairy-processing businesses.


After the close-down from 2011 to 2015, Marc found a way to restart. “Producing ‘farmhouse based cheese’ was the loophole I needed. It requires a lot less licences and permits. The cheese can only be sold directly and online – not in stores.” The Yellow Valley ‘new style’ offers a wide range of traditional and special products, like the original Cheese, the Aged, Herbs de Provence and Cumin varieties and even with local cheese favourites with onions and garlic. There is even a spicy variation red Currently, nearly 90% of its sales go through WeChat, Weidian and Taobao channels.

After the reopening of Yellow Valley in mid-2015, Marc aims to increase production. The company is expanding its facilities to 65+ square metres of production space, a ripening chamber and an exhibition space.

Foreign acquisition

French cheese maker Bel acquired 70% of Shandong-based Junjun Cheese in 2022. Bel has said not more about this move than that it expects hat it will hasten its advance in the Chinese market.

Cheese as flavouring ingredient

So the Chinese are surely developing a taste for cheese, but what would it take to bring this market to maturation? One problem is that cheese is hard to integrate in Chinese cuisine. You can try to design a recipe for cheese-filled dumplings, but this may make them taste more like an Italian dish than a Chinese snack. The same would happen, if you would sprinkle grated cheese over a bowl of Sichuan-style dandan noodles. It may actually be tasty, but I wonder if it would ever become a hit. One solution could be to do tests with adding molds like those used to produce furu (fermented bean curd) to cheese and develop an indigenous moldy cheese. Huangshan Tianfeng Foods Co. produces a version of the traditional Chinese rice cake niangao flavoured with cheese. Sailor Foods (Fujian) has launched a Cod & Cheese Sausage in 2019. It is a steamed cod-based sausage, with chunks of cheese to add a new flavour, while avoiding a strong cheese taste.

Zhenzhang Food Co., Ltd. (Xi’an, Shaanxi) has launched a cheese-filled mooncake in 2020, using Tatura cheese cake as the main ingredient for the filling. You could see it as a Chinese style cheese cake.

Hsu Fu Chi launched a cheese flavoured saqima in 2021. The company states that it uses imported Danish cheese.


Another problem is that the little natural cheese that is actually produced on Chinese soil is not linked to the local food tradition, the local terroir. When I first lived in China in the 1970s, we could buy cheese from Heilongjiang province (the home region of Mr Liu Yang), close to the Russian border. That was real natural cheese. However, production seems to have halted; pushed from the market by imported cheese and locally produced processed cheese. An idea for Mr Liu Yang would be to promote his Beijing-produced cheese as the ideal companion of Beijing’s famous baijiu (distilled liquor): Erguotou; a beautiful marriage between the old and new local tradition.

Cheese has set a firm foot on Chinese soil and it certainly there to stay and to grow.

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

Medicine Food Same Source

This is a literal translation of the Chinese expression yao shi tong yuan, which indicates that in the traditional Chinese perception food and medicine are substances derived from the same raw materials. There is a strong link (overlap) between pharmaceuticals and food in traditional Chinese thinking about food, nutrition and preventing/curing disease.

The function of many medicinal plants is often referred to as restore (bu) in Chinese. Medicine brings the diseased body in balance again. The various basic flavours are also accredited medicinal functions.

One consequence of this view on food and medicine is the existence of medicinal restaurants in China. You can tell the cook about your ailments, and he will compose a meal with ingredients that address those problems. This is called yaoshan, ‘medicinal meal’, or shiliao, ‘cure through eating’, in Chinese, again a combination of medicine and food.

This part of the Chinese cultural heritage has a strong influence on Chinese policy making. A good example is the Chinese government’s strong attention to promoting public nutrition. While most Western governments believe that promoting fortified foods is misleading the public from a more healthy diet, the Chinese authorities are actively promoting fortified foods. See our special item about that topic.

If you think that the modernization and the increased influence of Western thinking in China will make this belief in the healing power of food disappear, you are very wrong. On the contrary, we have seen a number of foods fortified with traditional Chinese medicinal herbs appear on the market. An example is honey fortified with dangshen (radix codonopsis), a ginseng-like root. Ginseng itself is also more and more used as an ingredient in Chinese dishes.

The national authorities have issued a list of 87 TCM herbs that are allowed as food ingredients.

Nutritional beverages

TCM has especially inspired the development of a range of health drinks. I will mention a couple of the most representative here.

Stewed pear

Cansi’s (Nengshi) “stewed pear with rock sugar is positioned as an ancient folk recipe that has been spread for thousands of years throughout China”. Some of the claims the product makes are to “lubricate lungs” and to “relieve stress”, with pears playing an integral role in traditional Chinese medicine. The product also has TCM ingredients, such as honeysuckle and lily extract.


Yam drink

Natural Source’s Wall Breaking Yam Juice earns it name from the technology it uses. With its yam juice processing, it’s claimed that superior technology can break the cell wall to release additional molecules for nutrition value. The result is that when consumed, it increases the absorption rate by 80%. Yam is one of many traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients that are being processed, combined with other flavours and packaged for modern times.


Biscuits and water for stomach problems

The Jiangzhong Pharmaceutical Group, that became famous for its successful TCM drug against stomach ailments due to indigestion, has launched a biscuit with extracts from the hericium erinaceus fungus in 2015. It is an age old ingredient in Chinese cuisine and an equally old raw material for TCM drugs against problems in the entire digestive tract.


Early 2020, instant noodle maker Jinmailang launched a new type of bottled water that has been pre-boiled. It is marketed under the brand name Liangbaikai. This literally means ‘Cool Clear Boiled’ and has been derived from the Chinese expression ‘cool boiled water’, i.e. boiled water cooled down to an agreeable drinking temperature. According to TCM, such water is much better absorbed by the human body than tap water or other types of bottled water. The ad states that this water ‘is more suitable to the guts and stomachs of the Chinese’.

Military participation

Chinese military researchers are are also developing modern applications for traditional herbs. An interesting item we have spotted in this category is an ‘antiradiation biscuit’, a biscuit with the extracts of five Chinese medicinal ingredients. It has been developed for military use, but has also been made available to the general public. We have not yet found it on any supermarket shelf though.

The Wuhan College of Military Economy has develop a type of biscuit that can increase the body’s oxygen level and alleviate fatigue for 48 hours. The recipe includes a number of herbs from traditional Chinese medicine. Once more, this product has been developed for use by soldiers, but it will also have an interesting market in tourist destinations in high elevations, like Tibet. Problems caused by oxygen deficiency often spoils part of the fun among tourists in such regions.

Herbal coffee

One way for TCM to redefine itself to fit into the present age is to link up with a popular beverage like coffee. A time-honoured traditional Chinese medicine store Huqingyutang has opened a cafe named “HERBS EXPRESSO” to sell ‘coffee’ in Hangzhou (Zhejiang). Unlike regular coffee, which is extracted from coffee beans, the cafe’s ‘coffee’ is sourced from herbs and processed with a coffee machine. Actually, the ‘coffee’ is a coffee-flavoured herbal drink, the cafe’s manager said. Mixing fresh fruits, milk and cream, the taste of the new herbal drink is better than the traditional herbal soup. “By improving the taste of herbal drinks, we want to promote traditional Chinese medicine culture to the world,” the manager added.


Under the weather? Go to the pub!

Tongrentang Group, a renowned traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy, founded in 1669, has opened two fusion cafes that offer drinks and healthcare services in Beijing in 2020. The cafe provides different kinds of coffee drinks that are infused with herbs such as licorice, monk fruit and cinnamon. It also offers various teas that are mixed with Chinese wolfberry (goji) and grapefruit. The cafe also has an area where shoppers can buy featured products such as honey, goji, cubilose (bird’s nest) and ginseng. Tongrentang plans to open 50 flagship stores in major cities nationwide in the next five years to offer comprehensive healthcare consulting services. On top of that, it will open more than 3000 landmark cafes in major commercial areas.

Foreign interest

Multinationals have started to note this development as well. Lipton is marketing a tea on the Chinese market with extracts from Chrysanthemum, honeysuckle and lily. The tea is named: Qing heng cha, ‘clearing balance tea’.


I will list the ingredients and add the various activities attributed to them according to the Chinese Materia Medica:

Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

  • Clear heat, relieve toxic fire – hot, painful swellings in the throat, breast, eyes; intestinal abscesses.
  • Expel wind-heat – fever, aversion to wind, sore throat, headache; also for summer-heat.
  • Clear damp heat from the lower jiao – dysentery, lin syndrome.


  • Disperses wind, clears heat (bitter, cold) – headache, fever.
  • Clears liver and the eyes (sweet, cold) – wind-heat in the liver channel manifesting with red, painful, dry eyes or excessive tearing, or yin deficiency of the kidneys and liver with floaters, blurry vision, or dizziness.

Green tea

I wonder why Unilever has not yet started marketing this range (there or more such teas available on the Chinese market).

Meanwhile, the famous Pu’er tea from Yunnan is also marketed worldwide a slimming aid and a way to lower blood lipids.

Example of a foods that are ascribed medicinal functions according to TCM in this blog are: dates (jujubes) , lotus pods, sea cucumbers, and dried plums (huamei). Examples of foods enriched with medicinal ingredients introduced in this blog are: moon cakes and some military food.

TCM and COVID-19

Traditional Chinese Medicine has played an important role in the treatment of COVID-19 infections. Clinical treatment shows that several kinds of TCM used during the outbreak in China helped reduce illness in patients and improve the cure rate, according to Li Yu, director of the Department of Science and Technology, National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the next step, TCM treatment can be used for patients in the recovery stage. This is the stage in which TCM herbal compounds gradually change from pure medicines to health supplements.

Punk yangsheng

A vogue that started in China around 2020 is Punk Yangsheng. Punk refers to unhealthy living habits of young Chinese, like sleeping late or not at all, clubbing, eating junk food, etc., all in a quest to make lots of money. Still being Chinese the want to compensate for their unhealthy habits by engaging in the yangsheng, or body-healing, habits of older generations. Middle-aged people might sip goji berry tea to stay young; their children are now buying bottled beverages with infused goji berries to make up for lack of sleep. other trending yangsheng drinks include those that promise results like a clearer complexion, more energy, weight loss, and reduced oedema. Priced between RMB 20 and 40, they’re not cheap. But that doesn’t seem to have curtailed their appeal. The following illustration shows more examples of how food or drinks with TCM herbs are used in this way.

TCM in animal feed

A new development is the use of selected TCM herbs as ingredients for animal feed. Practitioners in China have prescribed bitter blends of medicinal plants and herbs for centuries to ward off disease in humans. Now, farmers are adapting the age-old elixirs — a dash of ginseng here, a speck of licorice there — for use on livestock. They’re hoping to tap into the growing popularity of traditional medicine and health food in Chinese society. The expected results are not only delicious but healthy: lean, juicy meats that can protect against colds, arthritis and other illnesses. A Guangxi farmer began mixing 22 kinds of herbs into the daily feed for his livestock several years ago. The pigs that he raises sell for more than double the price of ordinary pigs, and some customers even eat his meats instead of taking medicine. Farmers like Mr. Lin hope that China’s increasingly health-conscious middle class will help bring medicinal meats into the mainstream. The health-food market in China reached $1 trillion last year, and it is expected to grow 20% annually for the next several years.

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.