There’s a looming question for every producer in the China snack market. How sweet or salty should my product be? For foreign producers, the question is particularly vexing, as Chinese preferences for the sweet and savory are often different from the brand’s home market, and can both overlap and diverge significantly.
To get some perspective from the ground-up, The Silk Initiative spoke with chef Kim Melvin, of Shanghai’s Commune Social restaurant, who deals with the question of sweetness and saltiness on a daily basis, and went searching the shelves of Chinese convenience stores to see how producers are answering the question for themselves.
Melvin has worked as a pastry chef for the past 12 years, including four in London with well-known chef Jason Atherton and eight in Shanghai as pastry chef of Commune Social, an award-winning modern Western restaurant that draws both expats and local alike.
In that time, she learned to adapt her recipes for Chinese and Asian customers, who often complained that the desserts were too sweet, a common refrain. China, after all, consumes far less sugar than the rest of world, with each person eating an average of just 16 grams of sugar per day, or about half the sugar in a can of Coca Cola. Compare that to the US, which consumes 126 grams per person per day and Germany at 103 grams per person per day. The country is far off the world average of 24 kilograms per year, according to World Health Organization data, clocking in at just 11 kg per person in 2013.
The secret, according to Melvin, is not the obvious: cutting sugar. Pastry is a fragile art and sugar is indispensable in many dishes. Instead, her experience taught her something quite different: add salt. If a cake recipe she’d use in London called for five grams of salt, she’d use ten grams in China, for example.
In the main kitchen, interestingly, the opposite was happening. The same customers who complained of too much sweetness in their desserts often found the mains to be too heavily salted for their liking. So, while the head chef and his team adapted by reducing the amount of salt in savory dishes, the exact opposite was happening in the pastry kitchen. They found that in order to please the guests, the boundaries of sweet and savory had to blur.
Interestingly, this may be generational. In 2017, Chinese households consumed 4.45 billion kilograms of sugar, according to USDA data, but according to a 2014 survey by China’s health, education and sports authorities, males aged 13 to 17 accounted for a disproportionately high amount of all that sugar. The vehicle? Soft drinks. In fact, while China’s overall sugar intake may be significantly lower than WHO averages, as stated above, for the demographic of children aged 3 to 17, it’s much higher than global averages.
How will this play out in China’s snack food market, where both domestic and regional Asian producers are already blurring the lines between sweet and savory? What will it mean when a generation of millennials, used to drinking sugary drinks, grows up and their taste for sugar follows? The answer may already be on convenience store shelves. Hershey famously made their trademark Kisses “significantly less sweet” for the China market, according to their head of R&D. In the opposite direction, we see a lot more blurring of lines, as in the Filipino Liwayway Group’s Flutes, a crunchy penne pasta-shaped snack that blends a sweet tomato coating with a savory crunch. Another interesting direction is the incorporation of dairy into these snacks. One of the more interesting items is Indonesian brand Mayora’s Cal Cheese cheese wafer stick, long cigarette-shaped savory pastries filled with a sweetened cheese. At the premium end of the segment, we see a new snack from Korean brand Cheese & Art, which combines thin strips of gouda with the savory taste of ocean fish to create a completely new taste, not easily classified as salty or sweet.
Beyond convenience stores, the blurring is particularly pronounced in the bakery segment with shops like 85 Degrees and Baoshifu mixing sweet bread and sweetened mayonnaise with savory topping like dried pork floss and seaweed.
Going forward, we see this trend continuing and perhaps even strengthening. The broad outline will remain in line with Melvin’s experience in the kitchen: less salt in savory foods, more salt (to counter sugar) in sweet foods. The finer brushstrokes are where things will get interesting, as brands need to find ways to use both sweet and savory flavors to win over consumers, as we see in the market already. The days of simply cutting down on sugar may be quickly moving into the rear-view mirror, and brands will need to be prepared to match the changing tastes of China’s snackers.
Need an answer to just how sweet or salty is right for your product or idea? Find the balance that’s right for China’s snack food market through us, the experts in the Chinese F&B market. Our Product Blueprint does exactly that, taking your product or idea and testing it against the preferences of real-life consumers and our knowledge of the F&B landscape to help you and your product win in the cutthroat China snack food market. We are The Silk Initiative. We can help.