Chinese consumers’ post-pandemic diet demands flexibility and personalization, sleep and healthy ageing support

July 22, 2021

In the post-pandemic era, health has become one of the hot topics of the day, and Chinese consumers’ concern for their own health has risen to a new level. Experts in what consumers want and why, Mintel predicts that the Chinese in-home food and health supplements industry will see a boom in consumption. 

According to Mintel, China’s total consumer spending on healthcare was RMB 2.458 trillion in 2020, accounting for 5.9% of total consumer spending (RMB 41.589 trillion). Mintel forecasts that healthcare spending as a share of total spending will continue to grow over the next five years, accounting for 6.3% of total spending in 2025.

Meanwhile, the in-home food industry will account for 17.6% of total consumer spending (RMB 41.589 trillion). With a total of RMB 73.3 trillion spent in 2020, this represents a 13.1% increase from 2019. The rising consumer price index (10.6% for food and 0.4% for non-food), the shift from eating out to cooking at home, and the belief in the immunity-boosting benefits of dairy products have accelerated the growth of household food spending following the outbreak of coronavirus.

Catherine Liu, Senior Health and Wellbeing Research Analyst at Mintel, said “Chinese consumers’ spending on healthcare will continue to grow, driven by increasing health awareness, steady income growth and an ageing population. The pandemic is also driving consumption growth in sectors related to healthy eating, with a boom in household food and medical and healthcare products. This is mainly due to a change in consumer behaviour due to increased awareness in this area, as they are re-examining and selecting products based on their health needs, and the overall consumption focus has slowly changed.

When it comes to healthy eating, Chinese consumers are moving away from a holistic approach to a more detailed one

According to Mintel research, Chinese urban consumers consider balanced nutrition (60%) to be very important. While only a minority of urban Chinese consumers are currently attending to dietary details, such as reducing sugar intake (35%) and eating less processed foods (33%), they are realizing the importance of getting these details right. In fact, urban Chinese consumers consider a positive mental outlook (42%), more exercise (47%), getting enough sleep (52%), reducing sugar intake (55%) and eating less processed foods (59%) to be very important, but these areas still have room for improvement. However, compared to the pre-pandemic period, urban Chinese consumers have begun to increase the frequency of healthy eating (65%), regular exercise (57%) and even the frequency of taking health supplements (34%) has gone up.

Catherine explained, “Especially after the pandemic, Chinese unban consumers have gained a better understanding of health. Increased understanding has gone from medicine for illnesses to medical and dietary supplements; from nutritional balance to strengthening the healthiness of the diet through details. Our research shows that every consumer group is actively responding and acting.”

‘Mini’ trend responds to the need for flexible diets

In Asia Pacific, the share of new food and beverage* launches that mention the phrase ‘portion control’ on their packaging grew 68% from 2016 to 2021. According to Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD), in China, for younger consumers, ‘cravings’ are considered part of a healthy diet, with 52% of Chinese urban consumers aged 18-24 saying “I would rather eat fewer snacks that I like than healthy snacks that don’t taste good” and agreeing that “as long as portion control is in place, eating junk food occasionally will not affect health” (56%).

For the weight management consumer, according to Mintel, there is a 50/50 split between those who want to lose weight and those who want to maintain their weight in the next 12 months. 48% of urban Chinese consumers who want to maintain their weight want to keep their mood happy through weight management.

Catherine continued, “We’ve seen brands actively innovate their products in response to consumer demand. In the context of cravings, the first thing we are seeing is the emergence of the ‘mini’ trend, especially with innovations such as portion control packaging, which responds to the consumer needs of young people, maintaining the established taste of the product while bringing a certain level of healthiness may become a future direction for the comfort food and beverage category to try. Of course, for special consumer groups, the role of flexible diets in weight management products is more like providing consumers with mental flexibility, and brands can follow the trend of holistic health when launching cyclical products and services with a more user-friendly design.”

Aromatic ingredients help consumers reduce stress, sleep better and increase energy

The quality of sleep is closely related to the quality of life. According to Mintel, one in four (25%) respondents aged 18-39 reported experiencing emotional problems before going to sleep; one in five reported experiencing emotional problems when waking up. Meanwhile, in Asia Pacific, food, beverages and health supplements with new product packaging involving aromatic descriptions of ‘stress-reducing’ and ‘sleep-aiding’ benefits have grown from 0.5% in 2018 to 1.1% in 2021, and ‘energy-boosting’ efficacy claims rose from 1.4% to 1.6%, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD).

Catherine explained, “From both the service and product perspectives, brands can consider meeting the new needs of consumers’ sleep by emphasizing the refined consumption scenarios, resonating with consumers visually and enhancing the practicality of the products. In addition to packaging innovation, the application of ingredients is still one of the most important topics in product development. In the Asia-Pacific market, the growth rate of aromatic ingredients in food and beverage supplements with stress reduction, sleep support, and/or energy-boosting effects is on the rise. Although traditionally associated with the beauty and personal care category, this accelerating trend indicates the feasibility of expanding aromatic ingredients into the food and beverage category.”

Personalized nutrition emphasizes precise targeting

With the growing need for precise guidance, there is an increasing demand for targeted food and beverages in the packaged food and beverage segment among the sub-healthy population. According to Mintel data, 36% of Chinese urban consumers said they focused on understanding their nutritional needs following COVID-19, much higher than U.S. consumers (12%) and U.K. consumers (6%). Specifically, while Chinese urban consumers said they look at an average of 2.6 pieces of nutritional information when purchasing food and beverages, respondents with sleep or skin issues said the healthy food section was the food retail concept they were most interested in.

For trying customized personalized health services, 67% of respondents in lower-tier cities** in China were interested, which is higher than in tier-one cities (63%), while 63% of respondents aged 18-29 were willing to try a healthy meal customized to their health condition.

Catherine continued, “In terms of product packaging and display, brands can quickly attract the sub-healthy population by precisely targeting scenarios, such as intuitively presenting the health function of the food and beverage. In addition, our research shows a stronger interest in personalization in healthy meals, such as light meals. Brands can emphasize personalization in terms of ingredients/effectiveness while overlaying fun experiences to build emotional ties with young people. For the future of health products, there may be a shift from emphasizing ingredients to providing more personalized services to help consumers improve their health.”

Healthy ageing with both internal and external care

Currently, ageing is a major trend, so whether it’s beauty and personal care or food and beverage health products, there is a need to think longer-term about how to age healthily with consumers of different ages. According to Mintel data, 50% of Chinese urban consumers strongly agree that the earlier they take preventive measures against ageing, the better, and even 84% agree/strongly agree that using more technologically advanced anti-ageing products is worth spending more. 

In terms of appearance, most urban Chinese consumers cite loose skin (66%) and fine lines/wrinkles (58%) as signs of ageing. In terms of bodily functions, while only 22% of urban Chinese consumers associate ‘intestinal discomfort’ with ageing, this association is more prominent among respondents aged 30-29 (26%). And, 54% of 30-39-year-old respondents have taken gut supplements/functional foods and found them to be effective.

Catherine concluded, “Preventing ageing can be an opportunity for functional innovation, as consumers’ willingness to spend on this item is strong. Looking ahead, we foresee that consumers will mobilize their multi-perceptions when thinking about healthy ageing – not only for appearance but also for body functions. The next opportunity for food and beverage brands is to help consumers age healthier by focusing on bodily functions, particularly by creating a healthier gut.”

* Excluding baby food

**Low-tier cities in China are defined as third-tier cities or below, i.e. prefecture-level cities other than first and second-tier

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