Thu, Jul 09, 2009 - Page 14 News List

Asia’s battle of the bulge

Concerns over expanding waistlines in Asia have prompted health food companies to eye the region’s market as ripe for rapid growth

By Ralph Jennings  /  REUTERS , TAIPEI

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It’s the growing number of customers such as Bill Chung, who is on a diet after packing on 30kg, that food companies hope to attract as they expand health food lines in Asia.

Affluence and sedentary lifestyles have brought health problems such as obesity and diabetes to Asia, prompting locals such as Chung to fill up their shopping carts with products such as oats, yogurt and vitamins.

“I went to a bookstore and read about it,” said Chung, 33, a self-employed Taipei resident who lost 6kg over the past two months. “I’m spending a little less and it’s all healthy, so I’m on track.”

Asia has lagged behind other regions in packaged health foods consumption as the overall diet is relatively healthy with vegetables a main ingredient in many local dishes.

Nevertheless, the region’s recent economic success has prompted fast food chains to expand outlets across Asia and foods such as ice cream and chocolates have become popular.

Where high-calorie junk food goes, health food follows close behind, those in the industry say, predicting solid growth for health products in Asia in the next few years.

“They [health foods] are emerging products,” said Lyndsey Anderson, Asia food and drink head for the London-based market-forecasting firm Business Monitor.

“It hasn’t caught on as quickly in the developing world. People traditionally have healthier diets anyway. The need to pay for packaged health foods isn’t there. The region is lagging the rest of the world in that regard,” Anderson said.

“In terms of transitioning, that is completely turning around,” said Anderson, adding that she expected to see steady growth in this high-priced food sector starting from the end of next year or in early 2011 as the regional economy improves.

Health foods already make up roughly 5 percent of product lines sold by food companies in Asia, she said.

The market for functional foods, which range from flaxseed, wheat germ and soy-based products to probiotic yogurt, is worth about US$20 billion a year in Asia, including Japan, Anderson said.

In addition to standard health foods, the supplements industry, which includes vitamins and protein mixes, was worth about US$14 billion in Asia in 2006, not including Japan, according to estimates by research firm DataMonitor.

“In Asia, as people are getting more and more affluent, the health food market is certainly on the rise,” said Shirley Ivarsson, a dietician in Hong Kong.

Jostling for space on supermarket shelves in cities from Shanghai to Singapore are local health products such as root powders, herbal teas and variations of chicken soup, a favorite elixir among ethnic Chinese.

Singapore-based Cerebos Pacific, which makes bottled Essence of Chicken, saw 33 percent profit growth from 2004 to last year.

“Consumers are increasingly seeking quick fixes to address health needs as they grow increasingly tired due to demands of work,” the company said in a statement.

About a third of people in Asia and the western Pacific were overweight in 2005 with the numbers seen growing to 53 percent of men and 44 percent of women by 2015, the World Health Organization estimated.

“We’ve moved away from traditional agrarian values,” said Ted Ning, executive director of Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, a US-based consumer movement.

In China, 23 percent of the population is overweight and diabetes has become a serious health problem, with the WHO predicting that by 2030 diabetes cases will have doubled to 42 million cases.

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