As China's economy expands, health issues such as metabolic diseases and digestive-related problems are also on the rise. Functional foods are one of the solutions being used to prevent and counteract such issues.
To understand how and why people turn to functional foods to enhance their wellbeing, researchers looked at how consumers from Shanghai with health concerns and health professional doctors—trained in both traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and western medicine (WM)—perceive and consume functional foods. The study, published in Appetite (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105296), aimed to understand how functional foods can help to improve the wellbeing of Chinese people.
Consumers and doctors were interviewed about their understanding and views toward functional foods. Researchers identified three major themes: “(1) self-managed therapy using functional foods; (2) building trust with knowledge sharing; and (3) the importance of functional food heuristics.”
Increased stress, decreased sleeping hours and less exercise were factors impacting consumers' overall health and wellbeing, leading to metabolic stress such as hypertension, hyperglycaemia, hyperlipidaemia, and digestive health worries such as the short-term irritation of digestive issues. Thus, consumers turned to functional foods for self-managed therapy. Interestingly, researchers noted "most doctors also agreed that functional food could be used as a therapy." However, consumers still lack specific advice from doctors about functional foods. Doctors felt nutritional health advice is not necessarily within their knowledge scope. One doctor shared: "I can’t give specific guidance, unless there's a nutritionist to give advice. After all, nutrition is not my specialisation.”
When looking at how people perceive functional foods in China, researchers explained: “functional food was viewed as either a Western food with immediate effects or a TCM food with long-term solutions. In this way, functional foods could be used as a ‘Western’ therapy via instant solutions grounded in modern science and WM, while more ‘TCM-like’ functional foods were perceived as a long-term regulating approach that imposed less danger to their bodies.”
Problems in choosing the right type of functional food included trust in brands, risk of buying counterfeit products, and perceived lack of safety. Further, commercial information about products was deemed more untrustworthy compared to 'word of mouth' suggestions. Online searches, self-diagnosis and information provided by the consumer's own network seem to be critical when convincing consumers to buy functional foods.
When looking at how consumers follow specific heuristics to manage their views and trust toward functional foods products, researchers cited the need for authenticity, provenance and 'natural-ness.' Further, product certifications by recognised bodies such as the World Health Organization may help increase trust for consumers.