This was the opinion of an expert panel which convened at the recent Asia Pacific Agri-Food Summit held in Singapore, comprising of Kellanova VP R&D AMEA Yanjing Wang, FrieslandCampina Regional President Asia Corine Tap, A*STAR Deputy Executive Director SIFBI Professor Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, and Dole Specialty Ingredients Managing Director Weitze Ooi.
The panel was chaired by FoodNavigator-Asia and NutraIngredients-Asia Editor-in-Chief Gary Scattergood.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really brought health concerns into the spotlight and made that connection between health and food,” Tap told the floor.
“This was a good thing, but at the same time we also saw affordability challenges go up which meant that a lot of consumers may have wanted to eat healthier and more nutritious, but could not get these products due to cost limitations.
“So what we as food and beverage firms need to do is not only innovate in terms of fortification or reformulation and the like, but also look at increasing accessibility to these healthier, more nutritious products or consumers will always be limited by that.
“I think in this day and age we could even go so far as to say that product accessibility may be more important than the products themselves alone – we’ve looked at things such as smaller packages that can be distributed on more complicated routes such as to islands, and these are things that need to be considered more directly these days.”
Prof Henry highlighted that the biggest nutritional challenges in Asia today are Type II diabetes, nutrition for the elderly and nutrition for lower income groups which calls for more affordable nutrition options.
“The right nutrition is very important as it has impacts on issues such as stunting, the rates of which can be as high as 30% to 40% in some countries and this in turn has impacts on areas such as birth rate and work performance as it really is a very multifaceted etiology,” he said.
“It also has very poignant impacts on the elderly and there really aren’t very many options in supermarkets for things such as geriatric foods – older people need better nutrition to make up for their reduced appetites, which means that these foods in turn need to be highly palatable, high in nutrition and especially protein to ensure they have enough energy and protein to ensure that muscle loss does not come into play.
“Muscle maintenance is so important as losing this means a loss in agility, which leads to higher chance of falls and thus the increase of even more serious issues as a result.”
Wang stated that the nutritional issues facing different demographics across the different APAC markets are far from unilateral, even within the same market.
“We have seen that in each country, the nutritional challenges are different and unique between the various ages, genders, socio-economic status and beyond,” she said.
“One very good example is in South Korea where the rate of obesity and overweight female adults has not changed in the past 20 years – but male adults have seen a leap from 25% in 2001 to almost 50% more recently.
“Then there is also the issue of satisfying all the various sensory differences in different markets, because taste still remains very crucial to getting consumers to accept these products – and here again there are many variations, affected by the various culinary cultures, and one cheese flavour or potato chip texture could do well in Australia and Thailand but not in South Korea, so a lot of R&D needs to go into this.”
Applicability and affordability
According to Tap, Asian consumers are ‘as concerned as’ the rest of the world when it comes to sustainability in the food system, particularly in the context of climate change further affecting nutrition – but Ooi stressed that these concerns do not necessarily translate over to purchasing decisions.
“Living in Asia, it is clear to me that if you asked any educated consumer about sustainability they would say they are concerned – but when it comes to buying products, price and taste will still come first,” he said.
“And when it comes to the less or non-educated consumers, to be frank a lot of them simply do not care at this point, as affordability tends to be the major concern [which is also why] making extreme changes to products such as making all the ingredients healthier and functional but ending up with a really expensive end-product is not going to sell here.”
Prof Henry added that it is also essential to ensure that foods and beverages are not sent into the Asian market with a one-size-fits-all mentality, especially when transferring such knowledge from one part of the world to another.
“Trying to bring a product that has done well in a western market and putting it on shelves here in Asia as-is is not going to work as we have already found that the Asian phenotype tends to respond very differently to foods from others,” he said.
“Many MNCs and big brands are also looking for this sort of Asian data as this is crucial to market their products well here, and as such clinical tests need to be done if to have data that is applicable to the Asian population, in order to ensure that the products are also applicable to local needs.”