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Bone and joint the mainstay, growing attention on fish oil, novel ingredient NPD

Additionally, a growing list of novel food ingredients approved for use in 1) nutraceuticals and 2) conventionally regarded as both food and Chinese medicinal herbs is set to fuel new product innovation.

The value of China’s dietary supplements imports climbed 7.3 per cent to US$1.65bn in Q1, while exports went up 11.4 per cent to US$970m.

China’s import of fish oil and seal oil had increased in value, based on data from China Chamber of Commerce for Import & Export of Medicines & Health Products (CCCMHPIE). 

China imported most of its health foods from the US, Australia, Germany, Indonesia, and Hong Kong as of Q1 this year. 

China top five importers

Products imported from these places took up 57.9 per cent of China’s total health foods import value – of which 17.4 per cent came from the US, 14.9 per cent from Australia, and 13 per cent from Germany.

Although China imported the most health foods from the US, the CCCMHPIE noted that there was a yoy decline in import value, similarly for imports coming from Japan.   

In contrast, import value increased for products coming from Germany, Italy, Russia, and Norway.

Vitamins, beauty-from-within, pre-, probiotics products are the top selling nutraceutical categories on China’s e-commerce platforms. Categories such as liver, cardiovascular, bone and joint, weight management, are also areas of interest.

This is according to Li Gui Ying from the health industry department under CCCMHPIE. She gave a presentation on China’s dietary supplement industry development trends and international trade during the 12th Nutrition and Health Industry Development Forum, which took place in Shanghai on June 19.

“Vitamins are still the number one in terms of products that are selling well on e-commerce channels.

“Beauty-from-within products came in second. Main ingredients include collagen, grape seed, anthocyanidin, and especially for astaxanthin, there has been a trend of positive growth,” ​Li said.

At the recent 618 online shopping festival, JD Health told us that the top five categories with the highest transaction value were 1) bone and joint health, 2) products for regulating the “three highs” – referring to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood glucose, 3) beauty-from-within / antioxidants, 4) vitamins and minerals, and 5) infant and children nutrition.

JD Health also revealed Swisse, BYHEALTH, Tong Ren Tang, Inne, Move Free as some of the best-performing brands. 

“There was a notable increase in consumers’ awareness of their personal health, and the more specific health supplement categories are seeing a quicker uptake as reflected in their transaction value.

“Of which, products related to sleep support reported a 355 per cent increase in transaction value,” ​said the company, adding that eye health and weight management products were also fast growing.

In this series of VitamINSIGHTS, we will take a deep dive into the emerging categories of fish oil omega-3, changing consumption behaviour on e-commerce and social commerce, progress on novel food ingredients approval, and the outlook of China’s nutraceutical industry.

Categories of growing interest: Omega-3 / fish oil  

Omega-3, especially fish oil, is a fast-growing category in China. Firms such as Blackmores and GNC are both tailoring their products to suit local needs and preferences.

Blackmores, for instance, has launched fish oil-based products that support cardiovascular, joint, and bone health.

“Fish oil supplement popularity in China is soaring, with strong double digit category growth, due to widespread education on the health benefits of fish oils, primarily supporting heart health and cognitive function. As consumers recognise its positive impact, demand continues to surge.

“All of Blackmores’ recent product launches in China align with our overarching vision of connecting people to the healing power of nature. Over the past 12 months, we’ve introduced products specifically tailored to Chinese consumers,” ​said Claire Syson, Blackmores head of marketing and new business development, China.

Omega Ultra is one example which was designed for the China market.  

Each capsule contains 1.5 grams of concentrated fish omega-3 triglycerides equivalent to 480mg of DHA and 720mg of EPA, and 3.75mg of d-alpha-tocopherol.

On its label, the product claims to contain nine key benefits, including brain, eye, and cardiovascular system, as well as supporting the immune system and general wellbeing.

“This ultra-strength, concentrated product goes beyond the basics of cardiovascular health. With an impressive 10 key benefits, it’s a comprehensive solution that resonates with health-conscious Chinese consumers,”​ said Syson.

Another example is its Omega Mini launched in 2022.

It is said to address China consumers’ specific demand for smaller, highly concentrate fish oil capsules that are easier to swallow are preferred.

“Interestingly, this need wasn’t as pronounced for Australian consumers accustomed to larger capsules. The success of our Omega Mini innovation underscores the importance of adapting our offerings to the unique Chinese market preferences,” ​Syson added.

GNC China similarly believes there is huge growth potential for high purity fish oil products, driven by national promotion efforts.

Last year, the company launched GNC 97% high purity fish oil, which also took home the Product of the Year (Omega-3)​ in NutraIngredients-Asia Awards 2023.

The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) similarly noted that the EPA and DHA market in China was growing rapidly, particularly for higher concentrate products.

In comparison, the market size of EPA and DHA-containing infant formula had dropped 3.1 per cent to US$73.5m due to shrinking birth rates.

The market size of these omega-3s in food and beverage was much smaller, but it nonetheless rose by 6.3 per cent to US$16.6m. 

Most omega-3 used in China came from common refined, which grew 8.2 per cent in volume to 432 metric tons, followed by concentrates, which went up by 9.4 per cent to 263 metric tons.

Krill oil also grew by 7.9 per cent to four metric tons and salmon oil expanded 4.7 per cent to five metric tons.

Function (Qingdao) Marine Technology, the company behind krill oil brand VIK and the distributor of Norwegian krill oil brand NY-O3, is one of the main players in China’s krill oil consumer product landscape.

A mainstay category: Bone and joint health

Bone and joint health is a category which has outperformed in China when compared to other regions.

Haleon, for instance, said that its bone and joint health supplement brand Caltrate was its largest vitamin and mineral supplements brand in China – a phenomenon not seen elsewhere where the company also operates in.

In Q1 of this year, Haleon reported double digit revenue growth​ for Caltrate, citing strong growth from China.

At Healthplex Expo held in Shanghai between June 19 and 21, Blackmores showcased Ultra Move and Ultra Relief, two bone and joint health products designed for China consumers.

Ultra Move, for example, is designed for consumers engaged in “everyday exercise”,​ while Ultra Relief is for “intensive fitness”​ enthusiasts, according to Syson.

“Bone and joint health supplements are also growing in China. Factors like an ageing population and increased health awareness are fuelling this, and consumers are seeking products that promote bone strength and joint flexibility.”

Ultra Move contains 50mg of bovine sodium chondroitin sulfate, 100mg calcium, 1.25 mcg of colecalciferol, 375mg of glucosamine sulfate, and 20mg of magnesium per tablet. It claims to provide “triple action support for joint, bone, and muscle health.”

Ultra Relieve, similarly contains 200mg of bovine sodium chondroitin sulfate, 375 mg of glucosamine sulfate, as well as 375mg of dimethyl sulfone per tablet. It claims to “relieve mild joint aches, pains, inflammation and swelling” and “reduces symptoms of mild osteoarthritis.”

Blackmores Ultra Relieve and Ultra Move are products tailored for the China market.

“Fresh off the launch pad, these new to market products target two distinct consumer segments. For those engaged in ‘everyday exercise,’ Ultra Move provides a unique solution. Meanwhile, Ultra Relief caters to the needs of ‘intensive fitness’ enthusiasts. Both go beyond the typical glucosamine options available in the market,” ​said Syson.  

She added that Blackmores would continue focusing on promoting Ultra Move and Ultra Relief, especially through strategic partnerships with key platform providers, for the rest of this year.

In the recent 618 online shopping festival, Reckitt Benckiser’s Move Free – which focused on mobility function – was one of the top 10 bestselling health and nutrition brands on JD Health.

Novel food ingredients and food as “medicines”

The growing list of novel food ingredients (新食品原料) and ingredients recognised as both food and Chinese medicinal herbs (药食同源) is set to accelerate new product development in China.

Last year, the authorities have approved 12 novel food ingredients, including pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) disodium salt, where it could be used in the dose of 40mg/kg in beverages.

Others include yerba mate, catechins, Leuconostoc pseudomesenteroides, ​and blueberry anthocyanins.

As of June, six more have been approved.

At the same time, the authorities are also assessing ingredients such as ergothioneine​.

“For us from the industry, the approval of novel ingredients is a piece of good news,” ​said Li from CCCMHPIE.  

Xiamen Kingdomway announced on June 26​ that its subsidiary firm has received approval to manufacture PQQ in its newly expanded facility located in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

The facility has the capacity to produce five tonnes of PQQ per year.

“PQQ is a type of organic co-enzyme. It could be used as a raw ingredient in energy drinks, sports drinks, and electrolytes drinks etc,” ​said the parent company of US supplement brand Doctor’s Best.

It added that the ability to manufacture PQQ would elevate its product range and increase its market competitiveness.

“Foods as medicines”, or ingredients recognised as both food and Chinese medicinal herbs, is another closely watched space in China.

Last year, the National Health Commission (NHC) added nine ingredients​ into the Directory of substances which could be conventionally regarded as both food and Chinese medicinal herbs (按照传统既是食品又是中药材的物质公告).

They include Codonopsis pilosula ​or Dangshen, Cistanche deserticola ​or desert-broomrape, Ganoderma or Lingzhi.

This brings the total number of ingredients in the directory to 102.

During June’s Hi & Fi Asia-China and Healthplex Expo, “food as medicines” was a recurring theme both local and overseas companies.

Dong-e-e-jiao, which specialises in donkey-hide gelatin products, gave a presentation on “Current trends in Chinese-style nutritional products and Dong-e-e-jiao’s innovation”.

Donkey-hide gelatin is said to “nourish yin and tonify blood” (滋阴补血) and enjoys a 3,000-year legacy, according to the company.

One of its growth strategies is to develop healthy snacks based on the concept of “foods as medicines”.

At the same time, it would focus on promoting its core products consisting of donkey-hide gelatin and edible bird’s nest.

“In recent years, the company has also grabbed the opportunities that came along with new developments in China’s health and medical landscape. 

“We are adopting a two-pronged growth approach where donkey hide is promoted as a national treasure among travellers and a (domestic) consumer-centric strategy where medicines meet consumer health,”​ said Han Wei, assistant manager.

Beijing-headquartered Tongrentang, on the other hand, exhibited a series mooncakes containing ingredients commonly consumed as Chinese herbs, such as goji berries.

South Korea’s OEM and contract manufacturer Kolmar BNH is also competing in the local China market with its formulations developed based on the “foods as medicines” concept.

Some of the areas it would be targeting for future product development are immune and respiratory health.

Social commerce takes over e-commerce?

Social commerce, especially Douyin and Xiaohongshu livestreaming, is fast displacing e-commerce platforms when it comes to consumers’ spending preference.

In the early days, China consumers mostly purchased their health foods through direct-selling companies.

While online shopping has overtaken brick-and-mortar stores, another wave of competition awaits traditional e-commerce players Tmall and JD.

There is an outflow of consumers moving to social commerce mobile applications Douyin and Xiaohongshu.

During the recent 618 online shopping festival, over 190k sellers on Douyin reported a 300 per cent yoy growth in gross merchandise volume (GMV).

“In China, the sales channels for supplements have evolved significantly. We are seeing the shift to more online purchasing, and more social commerce,”​ said Syson.

Buying health products through livestreaming promotion, is however, not without risks.

Li said there could be challenges around how the products could be correctly depicted during livestreaming sessions.

“There are some cons especially when it comes to livestreaming commerce. This is because during livestreaming, many things are impromptu.

“And so, there’s concerns on how to standardise certain procedures, such as introducing the products and how to correctly guide the consumers in making their purchase.

“This could bring about some risks to the development of the industry. It is considered both an opportunity and a challenge,” ​said Li.

JD Health is seeking to draw consumers to its platform by providing professional consultation service led by nutritionists.

The mobile application service, first launched in 2020, operates everyday for 24 hours.

“JD Health has built China’s largest online nutritionists consultation team, with nearly 1,000 nutritionists and nutrition doctors on board, with a response rate of 95 per cent within 30 seconds,” ​said the company.

China health foods industry development outlook

China is known as a major raw ingredient supplier which is also strong in contract manufacturing. However, more needs to be done to nurture its homegrown health supplement consumer brands.

Companies from vastly different sectors, such as the coal and fashion industry, are also starting to take an interest in the health foods sector, said Li.

As the health foods market breaks into more segments, companies could find a place for themselves by positioning their products differently.

“There is a lot of potential for the industry’s development based on trends in national policies and international markets,” ​said Li.


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