27 April 2018
Obesity-Averse Thais Switch to Organic Foods and Low-Calorie Crackers
Officially the second most obese nation in Southeast Asia, many Thai consumers have belatedly wised up to the benefits of healthier eating and organically-reared produce, according to exhibitors at the Food & Hotel Thailand trade event.
Organic foods and healthy eating were the typical offerings on show from most exhibitors at Bangkok's recent Food & Hotel Thailand trade event. Across four days, the expo saw a wide selection of domestic and overseas businesses all looking to woo Thailand's ever-expanding number of health-conscious consumers.
This new level of nutritional awareness follows a government campaign to highlight the health issues associated with obesity, with Thailand being the latest Southeast Asian nation to have to come to terms with the increasingly corpulent nature of its consumers. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the country has the second-highest level of obesity (8.5% of all citizens) in the region, coming second only to Malaysia, which has a whopping 13.3% obesity level.
Keen to take advantage of this move towards more sensible eating was Au Lac Food Vegetarian Trade Manufacture, a Ho Chi Minh City-based producer of vegan food products. Outlining the opportunity as he sees it, Jay Nguyen, the company's Production Director, said: "Thai people are now much more health-conscious and far more knowledgeable about just what they should eat.
"For our part, we provide healthy vegetarian food for our customers with hygienic production and food safety as two of our major priorities. As a result, we are confident that we can make inroads into the Thai market."
For more than 25 years, Au Lac Food has dominated Vietnam's vegan food sector and currently operates some 80 retail outlets across the country. It now plans to expand across Southeast Asia, with Cambodia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand all in its sights.
During the course of the show, attendees had the opportunity to sample several of the company's vegan takes on such traditionally carnivorous fare as seafood, prawns, sausages, meat loaf, mackerel and bacon ham. Clearly buoyed by the response, Nguyen said: "While all of these products may taste like meat, they are all plant-based."
One local company hoping to crack the healthy-eating market was Thai-Nichi Industries. Based in the northern Thai town of Lamhun, the company is one of the country's leading manufacturers of rice chips and crackers. It is hoping that its recently introduced healthy-eating range will help wean many of the country's younger consumers off their junk-food diet.
Outlining the company's strategy, Kasaropron Ungjittrakul, a member of its marketing team, said: "The market for healthy snacks remains small and niche in Thailand. Despite that, more and more people are now eating chips and crackers that are not high in calories.
"Until now, the problem has been that there are chips and crackers that are delicious but not healthy, and there are crackers that are healthy but don't have a particularly great taste. Our products, though, are both healthy and delicious.
"At present, the healthy snacks we sell include rice and beans, sour cream, sea salt and Mexican grilled chips. All of them are GMO-free, gluten-free, MSG-free, low fat and trans-fat-free. Health-conscious buyers now consider the nutritional benefits of the food they buy and are willing to pay a premium for it."
Founded in 1991, the company still produces its popular range of less-healthy rice crackers and chips. Indeed, it is now exporting many of its core products to Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.
Foods Classic Co, a Bangkok-based importer and distributor of frozen seafood, primarily from Japan, was also hoping to capitalise on Thailand's growing penchant for healthier eating, a development that has triggered a change in its marketing strategy. Explaining its new approach, Overseas Co-ordinator Toshiro Yamagata said: "While Japanese food is popular with local consumers, the growing prevalence of dietary problems has made us re-evaluate our thinking. Given the increased incidence of food / lifestyle-related illnesses, most notably diabetes, we want to emphasise the healthy nature of our range.
"To that end, we have been looking to highlight our nutritional credentials by using green packaging and promoting our healthy and sugar-free offerings. Among the products we are focused on is Japanese odong, with its low carbohydrate content making it a healthy alternative to rice noodles, a staple of Thai cuisine. Similarly, we are also promoting the benefits of our salmon, scallop, mussels, crabs and squid imports."
Another convert to the healthy-eating cause was Martin Eleveld, Chief Executive of Captain Hook's Smokehouse, a Phuket-based producer of premium quality, organic, smoked-fish products. Keen to establish the company's waistline-friendly credentials, he said: "The thing that makes us different to our competitors is that we produce high-quality fish products, all of which are smoked using a traditional European technique. We also only use natural organic ingredients, all of which are guaranteed to be preservative- and dye-free.
"We are now putting a real emphasis on the health benefits of our products as we recognise that Thai consumers are now far more health-conscious. As a result, we have seen our sales grow steadily."
Among the company's most popular cold smoked products are salmon, dill salmon, tuna and swordfish. Its leading hot smoked items are salmon and mackerel.
One of the defining elements of Thai cuisine is its range of exotic sauces, a sector that has, again, had a healthy makeover. Looking to take a lead here was Siam Tin Food Products, a south Thailand manufacturer of ready-to-cook sauces and pastes, all of which are sold under the Cook@Home brand.
Clearly having brushed up on the company's promotional literature, Marketing Manager Wariya Pisuchpen said: "It's simple and straightforward to produce traditional Thai dishes when you use our range of ready-to-cook sauces and pastes.
"All of our sauces and pastes are also solely made with fresh herbs and high-quality spices. We don't use any artificial flavourings or colourings."
Understandably, many of the country's organic farms have also benefitted from the shift in dietary preferences. Set in the central Thai province of Ang Thong, the family-owned Sangthean Farm produces organic melons under the MEI brand.
According to Chirapha, the farm's owner, local consumers favour its produce as it is all grown using traditional Thai organic farming techniques and production processes. Explaining his pricing strategy, he said: "Organic fruit is always going to be a little more expensive than commercially-grown fruit, but a growing number of health-conscious Thais are now more than willing to pay a premium for such items."
One of the furthest travelled exhibitors at the event was Utah-headquartered PMI Foods, with the US grain-fed beef producer having made the 26,500km round trip in order to identify emerging opportunities in the Thai market. Traditionally, this has been a tough sell for North American meat producers, with the majority of Thai consumers having a distinct preference for locally-produced beef or, at the more premium end of the market, grass-fed Australian beef.
Asserting the superiority of his company's range, Dan Breiner, PMI's Asian Sales Manager, said: "US grain-fed beef is actually juicier and more tender than Australian grass-fed beef. Similarly, in health terms, there is no scientific evidence that beef from grass-fed cattle is any healthier than beef from conventionally-raised grain-fed cattle.
"The real difference, however, is in the taste. It's widely acknowledged that US beef from grain-fed cattle is hugely tasty and very flavourful."
Whatever its benefits, Thai consumers may be hard to convert. Regardless of its taste or health advantages, the thrifty locals are clearly going to be deterred by the 50% import duty payable on US beef.
Food & Hotel Thailand took place at the Bangkok International Trade & Exhibition Centre (BITEC).
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Bangkok