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Restaurant menus, home-cooked meals, and snacks served across Asia are diversifying. This mirrors an emerging global trend and reflects a new twist in the historic interplay of food and health across the region.
Ancient Asian wellness philosophies place a priority on nutrition for illness prevention. For this reason, people in markets like Japan, China, and South Korea traditionally consume vegetables, meats, and herbs endowed with nourishing properties. Similarly, enjoying tropical fruits in Southeast Asia is partly linked to their nutritious value.
But tastes are changing. Consumers of all ages are taking greater care to optimize their dietary balance. While younger people seek to integrate food, fitness, and wellbeing into their daily lifestyles, many Asian societies are aging rapidly. Older generations are choosing classic and modern meals made with immune-boosting ingredients.
This evolution of food choices was underway before the COVID-19 pandemic. Greater awareness of the need to condition the body and mind to meet unforeseen health challenges has sharpened palates.
Interactive technology is assisting the process. Biodynamic techniques are improving plant and crop health. Food chain tracking apps enable consumers to monitor the harvesting and distribution of fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood. Online fresh produce marketplaces and live streams connect shoppers with farmers and artisanal food producers. Express home delivery maximizes product freshness and nutritional value.
Together, these factors are elevating interest in sustainable, farm-to-plate dining concepts, and nutrient-packed recipes to prepare at home. When it is time to snack, quality and flavor preferences are also shifting.
Here are five factors to consider:
Consumers are connecting specific foods with physical health, personal branding, and weight management. In addition to cutting carbs and calories, attention is turning to the body and mind-boosting superfoods and edible “beauty snacks”.
As mentioned in our recent article, Five post-pandemic beauty and wellness trends in Asia, demand is rising for products formulated with plant and fruit-based ingredients, ranging from pumpkin to pepperberry.
Fermented drinks, such as kombucha, are coveted for enhancing beauty from within, and vitamins zinc and selenium-enriched yogurt drinks in Thailand claim to boost the immune system.
Fitness-focused consumers are also experimenting with food combinations that increase energy levels, nourish the skin, and reduce the signs of aging. Meanwhile, on short video apps, users learn and share details of Olympic and elite-level sports stars who follow performance-based diets that eschew meat, dairy, gluten, and refined sugars.
Consumers seeking wholesome foods to support dietary discipline and improve mental and physical health are shopping around online and offline. As a result, the shelves of supermarkets and online marketplaces are ever-more diverse, and numerous products are promoted for their health benefits. Shoppers are also showing a renewed preference for locally cultivated and sourced foods to ensure freshness and support rural producers.
A greater choice of organic, vegan, and gluten-free products is driving demand for healthier home consumption. Asian consumers seeking a milk substitute traditionally turned to soy drinks. Today, an array of imported and homemade brown rice, almond, and macadamia drinks are barista-quality for home-brewed lattes or healthy desserts.
Whereas spaghetti was once the only pasta option, gluten-free versions made from purple rice, soy, and spinach are commonplace, while noodle varieties include pumpkin, potato, and uji matcha.
As more diners experiment with their diet, they are becoming more selective. Meat and seafood consumption, for example, is mixed and matched with vegan dishes. Food innovators are tapping into demand for flavorful alternatives to meat that go beyond tofu and tempeh.
Chinese plant-based brand Zrou works with celebrity chefs like Tony Xu and David Laris to promote meat-free gastronomy and is creating a vegan menu for Accor Hotels. Indonesia’s Green Butcher supplies “beefless” products to Starbucks made from soy protein, chickpea, and mushrooms.
In Vietnam and Malaysia, burgers are flipped from fiber-rich jackfruit, and a Singaporean start-up produces high-protein meat substitutes from microalgae. Protein-rich ingredient innovation also extends beyond BBQs, burgers, and sandwich bites. In Japan, a vegetarian sushi brand is using plant-based fish protein, which it says reproduces the taste and texture of real sushi in a sustainable, fish-free way.
A fast-developing quest for improved dietary health is guiding consumers towards organic products that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and iron that is crucially sustainably nurtured.
Indonesia recently certified inulin and oligofructose, which are contained in chicory root fibers, as immune-boosting prebiotic ingredients. This could spur the development of new chicory root-based health foods. Seaweed harvesting has increased in several markets.
In addition to being a coveted ingredient for skincare formulas, vitamin and mineral-packed ocean algae features in noodles, condiments, snacks, and dipping sauce. Awareness of the circular economy’s benefits for dietary health is also gaining traction. Agritech specialists are reusing waste ingredients from food processing, such as spent grains from beer brewing and okara from tofu making, as protein-rich ingredients for other products.
A desire to enjoy sweet treats that are lighter and less calorific was sweeping Asia before the pandemic. In recent months, more guiltless desserts crafted by start-up meat-free brands have emerged across the region. These brands are responding to the broader rejection of cholesterol-heavy animal fats, with stronger demand for dairy-free, gluten-free, and additive-free products.
There are new ranges of fat-free sorbets in China to vegan ice creams in the Philippines and hand-crafted plant-based desserts in Malaysia. Many new health-aware dessert purveyors are forged from home or in so-called ghost kitchens, which lower the cost for gourmet-inspired start-ups, enabling them to focus on flavor innovation and product quality.