Day 64: Got Spam? Why packaged food is considered “healthy” in China.

Just another day in a Chinese hypermarket, this time on a mission.

Among the giant bottles of cooking oil, fish parts chilled on ice, and duck heads drying on racks, I search for food I recognize, food I understand, and food I can make into dishes I know and love.

There are items I recognize and then there are items that are absolutely dumfounding. Like many of the massive vegetables that are bigger than my face. At least I know they are edible. I think.

But I notice something else. Something very… American. But with an obvious Chinese flair.

Packaged food!

A growing trend in Chinese supermarkets and hypermarkets is the prevalence of packaged food ranging from instant oatmeal and rice to pickled eggs and meat. It is an interesting phenomenon common in big cities where fresh food is more difficult to procure and urban individuals cook less and less.

The HKTDC, or Hong Kong Trade Development Council, conducted a study on China’s Packaged Food Market in 2009 that I believe is still applicable today. They found that from 2000 to 2008, the annual growth of packaged food sales grew by 10.8% on the mainland, compared to only 4.2% growth in all of Asia.

What is interesting is that they also found Chinese consumers to be increasingly “health-conscious” with 73% of respondents preferring individually packaged food.

Wait.. say what? 

Yes that’s right. Chinese consumers believe that clean and securely packaged food is more hygienic and of higher quality than bulk food. Wow. That is definitely a twist on the American health craze that promotes juicing, eating clean, and buying local.

With recent concern about pollution in China, packaged food represents protection from the hazardous environment. Consumers are willing to pay a premium on imported food because they believe that food quality management is better outside of the mainland.

This goes completely against my idea of “health-consciousness” which advocates for fresh, wholesome food and if necessary, packaged food with few ingredients. Packaged food often contains preservatives and unknown ingredients that adversely affect our health. However with the terrible pollution in China, it is no wonder people do not trust fresh food.

But sealing unhealthy food in a clear wrapper does not make it healthy.

I only wonder when the Chinese will begin to focus on the ingredients of packaged food and how it affects their bodies. Stripping food of its natural form is often more harmful than the polluted environment from which it originates. Until then, it is only a matter of time till they catch up to Americans and have their own obesity epidemic.

Now excuse me while I go drink a green smoothie.