Black is beautiful – also in food

Black may be the colour of evil, even in Chinese culture, but for food it is a sign of superior nutrition

Black food has become a focus in the Chinese health food market in recent years. Black food refers to the natural melanin containing foods, whether derived from animals or plants. The natural melanin content causes a dark, dark purple, or dark brown colour. Some foods have a dark skin, while others are black at the end, inside or outside, such as black goji, black rice, black sesame seeds, black fungus, mushrooms, seaweed, kelp and laver. Manufactured black food, such as plum sauce, bean curd, soy sauce, cured egg etc., are meant to stimulate people’s appetite through their colour, but do not count as real black food.

The scope of what counts as black food is not strictly defined. The Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Biotechnology is one of the earliest domestic research institutes specialising in black food. It defines black food as having a relatively dark natural colour, rich in nutrition, and structurally acceptable to the human physiology as food. This definition excludes artificially black foods such as soy sauce.

Black foods contrast with food groups of other colours:

  • White food: bread, noodles, etc.; main nutrients: starch, sugar and other carbohydrates;
  • Red food: pork, beef, lamb, chicken and rabbit; main nutrients: protein, fat;
  • Green food: green vegetables and fruits; main nutrients: a variety of vitamins and cellulose;
  • Black food: black rice, black beans, turtle, black fungus, black mushrooms; main nutrients: protein, fat, amino acids, vitamins.

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), black foods nourish the kidneys. They are rich in anti-oxidants and can therefore prevent several types of cancer and slow down aging. They strengthen the brain and lower blood pressure. The fact that shining black hair has always been regarded as a sign of physical health in China certainly also plays a role in the positive image of black foods in China.

Five Black Elements

The most conspicuous producers of black foods in China is the Five Black Elements (Heiwulei) Group in Guangxi. The company was founded in 1984 as the Nanfang Children’s Food Factory by Mr. Wei Qingwen. The name Heiwulei was adopted a decade later. The term itself originates from the Cultural Revolution, denoting five types of bad people (‘black categories’) in society: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, rightists. Mr. Wei loved black sesame paste, which was his company’s first product. Now, the company is producing ‘Eight Black Treasures’ (Heibazhen): black rice, black beans, black fungus, black mulberry, black corn, black dates, black sesame and black seaweed (laver).


Black milk powder

Yili Dairy has launched Tooran black milk power in 2021, containing powdered black sesame, black goji and mulberry fruit as well as walnut peptides. It won the ‘best functional dairy’ award on the 2021 World Dairy Innovation Awards.

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


The market for flour improvers and ingredients in China

China has produced 32,504,405.3 mt of wheat flower in the first 5 months of 2020; Henan was the largest region good for 27.36%.

Flour is an important food ingredient in China, both for the industry and the consumers. The nation currently consumes 70 mln mt of wheat flour per year. However, with the increasing spending power, the per capita consumption of flour has started to decrease recently. According to the State Statistical Bureau, the per capita consumption of flour in 2018 was 109.7 kgs, down from 121.3 kgs in 2012.

When I first came to China to study in 1975, flour and flour based products were still distributed using a system of coupons. When you bought biscuits in a shop, or ordered a bowl of dumplings in a restaurant, you were not only required to pay with cash, but also with grain coupons denominated in the weight of what you had purchased.

Those days lie behind us and flour is now available in abundance. However, it is still regarded as a strategic product. This is reflected in the selection of flour as a key carrier of nutrients in the state sponsored public nutrition program.

China has produced 88.917 mln mt of wheat flour in 2021; up 6.57%. Insiders expect that the Chinese demand for premixed flour will increase to 165,000 mt in 2025. In 2020, China’s top three flour producers (Wudeli, Yihai and COFCO) combined are good for 30% of the national daily processing capacity.

The following table shows the regional breakdown of the 2018 production and the ratio of each region in the total national output.

Region Volume (mt) Ratio (%)
Henan 26,925,000 30.34
Shandong 12,051,400 13.58
Anhui 10,528,900 11.86
Hebei 10,185,400 11.48
Jiangsu 7,793,600 8.78
Shaanxi 5,849,200 6.59
Hubei 3,251,100 3.66
Guangdong 2,838,100 3.20
Xinjiang 1,669,300 1.88
Fujian 1,516,600 1.71
Others 6,141,000 6.92

Decrease in demand deemed temporary

The demand for flour has been decreasing steadily during the past few years.

Season demand

(mln mt)

2012-13 97.10
2013-14 96.30
2014-15 92.00
2015-16 90.00

However, insiders name the gradual decrease of the population growth as the major factor behind this trend. They therefore expect that the demand for flour will start increasing again with the population growth that will be caused by the loosening of the family planning policy.

Specialty flours

Formulated flours, i.e. flours specially formulated for a specific end-product like dumplings, fried dough sticks (youtiao), steamed bread (mantou), etc., are gaining popularity in China. This makes the country a market that suppliers of various flour ingredients cannot afford to ignore. Apart from enzymes, emulsifiers and other ingredients commonly used internationally, a number of vitamins and minerals are also allowed to be added to flour.

This chain comprises four main types of companies, which  we will indicate using single letters:

Letter refers to
M Millers
E End-users, the companies that produce bread and other products, and consumers
I Producers of compound flour improvers
A producers of addtives and ingredients

In situation 1, by far the most common chain, the flow ends at the end-users, that receive premixed flours, which contains various ingredients. The end-users only add yeast (when needed), and ingredients as required by their recipes. The end-users in this situation are typically smaller companies, producing more standard products, and consumers.


The larger end-users prefer to assign the millers to produce tailor made premixes based on their own recipes. The top millers can also assist the end-users in optimizing their recipes.


Small and most medium sized bakeries do not buy single ingredients. They buy flour improvers and selected the improver that suits each of their recipes best, usually by a trial-and-error. Small bakers are open to exchange their experience with flour improvers when they meet during conferences, trade fairs, etc., and nowadays also on the Internet in one of the numerous trade related chat rooms.

In both situations, the improver manufacturers are the main target for suppliers of ingredients. Improver companies are usually established by scientist with specialist knowledge needed to select the ingredient for their flour improvers. Using this same knowledge and experience, they can help end-users optimizing their recipes. A very practical side of this is that it makes manufacturers of improvers relatively easy to talk with for suppliers in general and non-Chinese ones in particular.

The second in line as target for suppliers of flour ingredients would be the top millers, with sufficient in-house R&D capabilities.

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.