Growing up ‘big and strong’ is more than an expression in Vietnam, a country where taller and stronger people are considered healthier and more productive – it’s a national ambition.

Unlike in Western countries, Vietnamese adults are more likely to be underweight than overweight and one in three children under the age of five do not meet their growth potential.

According to the UN, the number of underweight children in Vietnam has reduced by a third in the last decade. However, a fifth of Vietnamese children are still considered to be moderately to severely underweight. This has led to over a third of Vietnamese children’s cognitive and physical development being stunted mainly due to deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, zinc and iodine.

While Vietnamese government plans to lower child malnutrition have been deferred, Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) found that almost two thirds (63%) of global innovation in claims for muscle and weight gain in formulas and follow-on milks between January and October 2014 occurred in Vietnam. The trend of marketing baby foods through claims of containing nutrients to aid weight and muscle gain has gained substantial momentum – only 5% of the new formula and follow-on milks launched in Vietnam between 2010 and 2013 featured the claim compared to the one in five launched in the first nine months of 2014.

One example is the Dutch dairy cooperative FrieslandCampina. They claim that for the first time their products are not only segmented by age but also specifically designed to target the nutritional needs of children’s developmental milestones from newborn to 6 years old. Alongside claims of height and weight maximisation, the company claims its products aid sleep habits, eyesight, memory and learning ability through a myriad of nutritional enhancements.

babyforumla1The wet/solid food segment is much less popular in Vietnam, it accounts for only 10% of the current baby food market, although this is steadily expanding; between 2011 and 2013 it grew by a fifth (18%). Of the wet/solid foods products launched between January 2010 and October 2014, two thirds (63%) claimed the product contains “no additives/preservatives” appealing to the general consumer feeling that additives such as E numbers, colours and preservatives are considered negatively. However unlike in formulas and follow on milks, less than a third of these claim some other developmental or functional benefit such as aiding digestion or brain development, and none claim to help with weight and muscle gain, suggesting that there’s a real opportunity for innovation in this sector in Vietnam.

In a different part of Asia, Junior Horlicks 1-2-3 is a drink product targeted at babies in India claiming to support weight and muscle gain. The high protein food powder can be mixed with milk to create a malt drink containing ‘vital nutrients for weight gain’, physical growth and overall development.

babyformulaThe growing interest in protein and its benefits to muscle development is globally still in its infancy in baby food. In the last two years, Mintel GNPD has found that less than 2% of the global new product launches in wet/solid baby foods and around 3% of global new product launches in infant formulas and follow-on milks featured a high protein claim. However the recent launches featuring claims of added protein by leading baby food companies such as Hain Celestial Group and Danone may be the beginning of a move towards increasing protein levels in the category.

The versatility of protein’s health benefits will allow manufacturers to meet parents’ and babies’ different needs around the globe – from height/weight gains in Vietnam, where only 4% of newly launched wet/solid foods featured a high protein claim, to addressing weight control issues in Western countries such as the US and UK.

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