Amid steadily rising reports that Asia is on the cusp of an obesity epidemic and growing speculation among the health care community that general health and wellness in Asia over the coming years is on a concerning trajectory, Asian consumers are becoming more conscious of their food choices. And many say they are concerned about their weight.
A recent study undertaken by Nielsen found nearly one in two (46%) Asian consumers think they are overweight, and more than half (54%) are actively trying to lose weight. For many consumers who are focused on weight loss, adjusting various aspects of their diet plays a key role in their weight loss strategy. In Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, for example, the majority of consumers trying to lose weight are doing so by cutting down on fat, while in Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, consumers are highly conscious of sugar. And in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, consumers are trying to eat more fresh foods.
Whatever their weight loss approach, one thing is clear: Asian consumers are seeking out greater visibility of product ingredients and attributes and want more information listed on product labels to help them make healthier food choices. Many consumers (66%) say they are prepared to pay more for products that do not contain undesirable ingredients, and 81% will buy local and natural alternatives where possible.
IS CONVENIENCE THE OBESITY CULPRIT?
As the primary means of employment across much of Asia has shifted from manual work to sedentary office jobs, food preparation has transformed to cater to consumers’ demand for products that offer convenience. This transformation has seen traditional fresh whole food preparation techniques being replaced by heavily processed foods, many of which are high in processed fats and sugars.
With obesity levels and the prevalence of chronic disease on the rise around the world, there is increasing questions around the role of processed food and the impact it is having on health.
GOVERNMENTS THE WORLD OVER TAKE ACTION
It is widely recognized that tackling obesity is not a simple task but one that requires a holistic approach across consumers, governments and businesses.
In January 2016, the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) presented its recommendations to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General on which approaches and combinations of interventions would be most effective in tackling childhood and adolescent obesity in different contexts around the world. ECHO’s recommendations included:
- Food guidelines and labelling to help consumers make better choices.
- Removal of “vices” that encourage bad food choice, such as child-targeted marketing, along with the introduction of a junk food tax.
Both recommendations will have a direct and lasting impact on food and beverage manufacturers. The introduction of such wide-sweeping health regulations and legislature cannot be ignored. Governments are waking up to the true underlying cost of obesity-related disease on their healthcare budgets and medical infrastructure and are implementing a host of health initiatives—from sugar taxes and new product labelling laws to food education in the classroom.
WILL 2017 BE THE YEAR OF THE SUGAR TAX?
While the sugar tax (a tax imposed on companies manufacturing products with high sugar content) has been around in some countries for a number of years, typical views on the rate at which companies should be taxed are shifting to a much higher percentage. In India, the potential tax rate is 40%, much higher than early adopters like Denmark and France, where 3% taxes were imposed, and Mexico’s more recent 10% sugar tax introduced in 2014.
As the world’s understanding of the product attributes that influence health and wellness increases, companies are entering a new era of corporate responsibility, where they will be held accountable and responsible for their products’ ingredients.
CONSUMERS: THE NEW PRODUCT LABEL POLICE
As consumers become more aware of and attuned to the consequences of the food choices they make, they are paying more attention to food labels. Almost three in five Asian consumers say they carefully read the nutritional labels on products.
Nutritional labelling has come a long way in recent years, with many countries requiring product specifics to be included on packaged foods. But what is deemed “mandatory” versus what is simply “recommended” varies significantly by country. It is this variation, both in product categories and the underlying criteria, that makes implementation difficult to achieve and places a significant burden on cross border marketing. This can be a major consideration when companies are planning to enter new markets or manufacture regional products.
STATUS QUO IS NOT AN OPTION FOR CORPORATIONS
Corporate awareness of swelling health concerns and the role manufactured food plays is high. Some companies are tackling the issue head on, with health initiatives high on their corporate radar. Here are four recently introduced corporate measures designed to address health and wellness concerns:
- Resize and restrict: Downsize packaging and communicate that products should only be consumed on an occasional basis or as a treat.
- Reformulate the recipe: Reduce products’ sugar/fat/salt content.
- Diversify the range: Shift offerings away from high sugar/fat products and focus advertising on healthier range offerings in their portfolio.
- Fight for the cause: Total refocus on creating functional or fortified product ranges, which aid in the prevention of obesity and chronic disease.
In the wake of this recent wave of new marketing approaches, consumer scepticism and demand for authenticity from brands has never been higher. Across Asia, more than half of consumers (56%) believe health claims are just a way for food and beverage companies to charge more for their products. Some big players have started to invest in small health-focused start-up companies to tap into both niche and emerging trends and channel health know how.
CONSUMERS WANT OPTIONS
Consumer preferences are changing. Nielsen’s recent Global Ingredient and Dining-Out Report revealed that consumers across Asia want access to more natural, organic, fat free products on shelf than are available today.
Some progressive companies are moving beyond traditional food manufacturing and exploring functional food and beverage offerings that can be used as an alternative to or alongside medication.
There is already growing support for this movement, with close to two-thirds of Asian consumers (64%) agreeing superfoods provide a natural way to prevent and treat ailments.
As support for superfoods gains momentum, some brands are looking to redefine themselves and are investing heavily in health science. Others are looking at functional foods that appeal to consumer segments, such as a new range of products designed specifically for cancer patients. These examples highlight the evolution of food beyond where it is today, as well as the opportunities for manufacturers in the future.
SIX WAYS TO APPEAL TO THE HEART OF THE HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CONSUMER
In order to stay one step ahead of emerging and future food trends, it is critical companies take a proactive stance in a handful of key areas, including:
- Being transparent on ingredients and labelling;
- Adopting natural, simple ingredients;
- Changing the formulation of a product to be healthier;
- Tapping into the functional foods movement;
- Leveraging technology to enrich the consumer experience and create healthy relationship with consumers; and
- Measuring, monitoring and self-regulating.
With heightening awareness of the burden obesity places on social and financial health systems, Asia is already on the cusp of a health revolution. Now it’s up to manufacturers, businesses and governments to work together to support and drive the revolution forward.