Many Western governments believe that citizens should be encouraged to take care of their own health and see to it that they get sufficient vitamins and minerals by eating a varied diet, with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole cereals and different protein sources. Adding vitamins and minerals to processed foods is allowed, as long as producers abide by the relevant regulations, but the government does not make public funds available to finance R&D and propagation of fortified foods.
China is one of the nations that actively support public nutrition. This means that the government finances R&D into the field of food fortification and the promotion of fortified foods, as a means to enhance the general state of nutrition of the population.
This is not surprising, because the concepts of food, nutrition and medicine are much more intertwined in Chinese culture (Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM) than in the West.
The leading policy making organization here is the Public Nutrition Development Centre (PNDC), an organization under the State Development and Reform Committee of the State Council. R&D is coordinated by the Nutrition and Food Safety Institute of the Centre of Disease Control under the Ministry of Public Health.
This policy, combined with a population of approximately 1.4 billion people, has created a highly attractive market for suppliers of single nutrients, nutrient pre-mixes, and ready-to-eat fortified foods. The Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair (March 22 – 24) included 26 suppliers of various vitamins, and many more of minerals other nutritious food additives.
The Chinese love to give localise foreign things and ideas. The Western nutrition pyramid has been made Chinese by changing it into the nutrition pagoda.
From top to bottom, the recommended daily intake of various nutrients is as follows.
Oil &fat: 25 – 30 gr.
Milk & dairy products: 300 gr.
Beans & nuts: 30 – 50 gr.
Meat: 50 – 75 gr.
Seafood: 50 – 100 gr.
Eggs: 25 – 50 gr.
Vegetables: 300 – 500 gr.
Fruits: 200 – 400 gr.
Staples: 250 – 400 gr.
Water: 1200 ml.
(The garlic-man advises to walk at least 6000 steps a day)
The Chinese government has a made a generous budget available to develop pre-mixed micronutrients.
Most micronutrients cannot be simply added to and mixed with other ingredients. Manufacturers of fortified foods need to be sure that the nutritional value of their product when consumed meets the promise they make in the nutrition information on the packaging. Some nutrients lose activity during heating, while others may dislike a low or high pH value. Some nutrients dislike one another’s presence.
This means that many nutrients need to be buffered or treated otherwise. This is specialist knowledge held by a small number of specialist scholars.
These researchers develop processes to protect single nutrients and formulate nutrient pre-mixes in state sponsored research facilities. However, those organizations are less suited for industrial production. A number of more entrepreneurial researchers have set up companies for the production of ready-to-use nutrients during recent years.
Several of them have been very successful and have proved to be fierce competitors to the multinational players like FMC or DSM, who are competing for a share in this lucrative market. The basis of their success is exactly their forming a close and effective chain with government regulators, research institutes, nutrition professionals and food and beverage manufacturers.
A number of projects has already been launched:
- Infant formulae and ‘nutrition packages’ for primary school children; infant formulae are by far the largest application, as well as the best known one. The nutrition packages are ready to use packages of micronutrients for children of primary school age. Experiments have been conducted with the latter, handing out nutripacks to children (see picture below), but providing such packages has not been institutionalised so far.
- Vitamin A fortified cooking oil; as a rice eating nation, many Chinese lack vitamin A and the PNDC has been searching for the best carrier for this vitamin. Cooking oil is one vector that has been tried, in cooperation with COFCO. Products have been launched, but sales seems to be disappointing so far.
- Wheat flour fortified with 8 nutrients; Vitamin A is also allowed in flour, another ingredient available in every Chinese household. Guchuan Flower has partnered with the government in developing fortified flour This experiment seemed to have failed as well, because consumers are not willing to pay a premium price.
- Fortified rice; in cooperation with Bühler, DSM has develop a process to fortify rice with several vitamins and minerals by making fake rice granules that are mixed with regular rice. This Nutririce is produced in Wuxi (Jiangsu). Bühler acquired DSM’s share in the plant late 2013, but DSM remains committed to developing this product. As rice is regarded as a strategic staple, this entire development process has been conducted in close contact with the relevant authorities.
- Iron fortified soy sauce; iron deficiency is huge in China and soy sauce has been found a proper carrier for iron (EDTA iron). It is current the most propagated fortification project in China. A number of soy sauce manufacturers have launched iron fortified products, but again so far the results seem to be somewhat disappointing.
- Iron fortified wet noodles and steamed bread (mantou); this multi-nation research project has been initiated by the Food Fortification Initiative (FFI) Secretariat in 2009 and executed by the Nutrition and Food Safety Institute of the Centre of Disease Control. The results were promising, but this has so far not resulted in the regular production of such fortified products.
- Probiotics; the fortification of suitable foods and beverages with probiotics like oligosaccharides was officially launched in January 2007. A sufficient intake of probiotics promotes a healthy gut flora.
- Iodine salt: until recently, iodine salt was required in all manufactured foods. This law changed in May 2018. Since then iodine salt is only required in specific cases like regions with iodine deficiency. Another aspect of the new rules was that iodine also has to be listed on the packaging of manufactued foods.
The lack of progress of several of the the above mentioned projects seems to indicate that public nutrition in China still has a long way to go. Possibly, the many food safety incidents are negatively affecting these campaigns. Chinese consumers are still waiting for regular food to be safe for consumption, so there is little attention left for fortified food.
Moreover, as a result of the public food safety concern, the Chinese media regularly report about ‘excessive number of additives’ in certain foods like soft drinks or ice cream. Fortified foods need to comply with the regulation to indicate all ingredients on the label, so they may end up with an even longer list of ingredients than the non-fortified competitive products.
However, there is already a large number of fortified foods available in China. Many of them add single nutrients, in particular calcium. Calcium deficiency is rampant in China as well, and calcium compounds are easy to add to foods and beverages. Iron, zinc, magnesium and vitamins in various combinations are added too.
An interesting example is Mondelez (formerly Kraft) that is producing biscuits in China with 10 nutrients added. The following table shows the content of each nutrient per 100 gr of finished product as indicated on the consumer packaging.
Another example worth mentioning here is Bread Pan, produced by Oishi, a Chinese venture of Philippines based Liwayway Holdings. The bread is sold as packed slices and marketed as a breakfast food. It is flavoured with shredded beef. Added nutrients per serving are listed as follows.
Some manufacturers seem to struggle between the will to make their product more nutritious additives and the need to maintaining the texture and flavour of the original product. In other posts, I have pointed out that most industrial bread sold in China comes with an impressive ingredients list. Mankattan Food is offering a ‘fortified bread’ with the following ingredients.
Whole wheat flour, high gluten wheat flour, water, HFCS, yeast, shortening, salt, gluten powder, calcium propionate, calcium carbonate, compound enzyme (calcium sulfate, vitamin C, xylanase, alfa-amylase, glucose oxidase), calcium lactate, food flavour, beta-carotene, mixed vitamins and minerals (maltodextrin, ferrous pyrophosphate, nicotinamide, zinc oxide, vitamin B1, vitamin B2).
This bread indeed supplies the consumer with some additional nutrients, but also contains a number of non-natural ingredients that are not strictly needed to make artisanal bread.
Most of these manufacturers of fortified foods and drinks do not cooperate with PNDC. This indicates that lack of strategic and marketing knowledge is part of the problem in propagating public nutrition by the authorities.
Does it work?
So is a public nutrition policy like that of the Chinese government more effective that the propaganda to eat well policy of most Western governments? So far, no comparative research has been conducted. My personal impression (I have been involved in a global market survey concerning public nutrition) is that big city dwellers in China or West Europe usually have few nutrition problems. They have the knowledge about nutrition and have access to nutritious food ingredients. The difference could be in the poorer regions on those countries and the entire globe. It does make sense to add nutrients to staple foods or food ingredients that are used in most households.
Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.