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Bids to Modernise Chinese Medicine Find Increasingly Open Audience

Consumers across Asia and beyond seem ever more receptive to the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine, with continued moves to undertake clinical trials only adding to the growing credibility of this potentially lucrative sector.

Photo: Organic ganoderma: Will Chinese consumers pay a premium?
Organic ganoderma: Will Chinese consumers pay a premium?
Photo: Organic ganoderma: Will Chinese consumers pay a premium?
Organic ganoderma: Will Chinese consumers pay a premium?

'Wild', 'fast' and 'superfoods'… While not usually words you would associate with Chinese medicine and healthcare, these were the key terms that emerged at the International Conference and Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine and Health Products.

This year's event attracted exhibitors from around the world, including the USA, France, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and the Chinese mainland. Across a variety of categories, including Chinese medicine, health supplements, health care and therapy, and functional food and products, the exhibitors showcased many of the successes and concerns that characterise this evolving and health-aware market sector.

The rise of wild and organic ingredients was one particularly notable market trend. Marinda Lau, President of New York-headquartered Great Neck Healthy Food, was at the fair selling pure Wisconsin ginseng, as well as wild American ganoderma, also known as medicinal mushrooms.

Standing alongside her latest range, which filled several large plastic pails, Lau explained some of the issues currently facing her company. She said: "There is a lot of ginseng and ganoderma in use by people who are interested in Chinese medicine, but much of it is grown and cultivated without high quality in mind. Our ganoderma is wild. It's organic and, unfortunately, that makes it more expensive. Sadly, some people are just interested in price."

Her company's strategy is part of wider moves to introduce a value system to Chinese consumers when it comes to the sale of those herbs associated with health. This would also encourage such customers to come to appreciate high quality cultivation techniques, as well as reaffirming their belief in the resulting health benefits. The difficulty here, though, is the reluctance of Chinese consumers when it comes to paying a premium for provenance and organic production. Not to be deterred, Lau said: "We will keep on trying."

The event also featured a dedicated educational display aiming at informing visitors of the importance of maintaining good health. With an understandable focus on Chinese consumers, the display highlighted many aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including the use of herbs to make especially potent Cantonese soups.

Introducing less traditional ways of consuming herbs, however, was the focus of another exhibitor, Taiwan-based Canbows Trinity International. Katy Chen, Executive Director of the company, was in Hong Kong to highlight the firm's array of dietary supplements.

She said: "So far, the most in-demand items have been anti-aging treatments. These particular dietary supplements contain barley grass, which historically has been used to treat inflammation, as well as to provide strength and stamina."

Tablets and pills, by and large, have played little part in TCM, a discipline that has long-favoured other means – notably culinary dishes, such as herbal soups – to deliver its health remedies. Asked if buyers were now embracing the idea of dietary supplements, Chen said: "This is a fast version of health. I think, given the modern lifestyle, people don't have time for the old ways of cooking herb-laden soups."

In some ways, Cantonese herbal soups are the original 'superfoods', a term mostly linked to today's Western-style ultra-health-aware diets. Chinese companies, however, are beginning to embrace the concept, bringing to the Chinese market 'superfoods' already popular in other countries.

One such 'superfood' that gained considerable attention at the fair was quinoa, a grain crop similar to buckwheat. Long known in the West as a trendy, healthy foodstuff, it's now being grown in China.

Photo: Ginseng: Good for bad backs?
Ginseng: Good for bad backs?
Photo: Ginseng: Good for bad backs?
Ginseng: Good for bad backs?
Photo: Most popular: Anti-aging treatments.
Most popular: Anti-aging treatments.
Photo: Most popular: Anti-aging treatments.
Most popular: Anti-aging treatments.

Keen to introduce the product to buyers was Gan Hai Lu, a Senior Manager with the Three Rivers Fertile Soil company, a Qinghai-based agricultural business. Her company is now growing quinoa in the highlands of Tibet, with its big selling point being its protein content.

According to Gan, if quinoa is to find a foothold in China, a nation with long cultural and culinary associations with rice, its benefits must be clearly spelt out. To this end, her company promotes quinoa as one of the most promising crops for the future, explaining that many experts now bill it as 'the lost ancient nutritional gold'. The company's literature also states: "NASA has approved quinoa as the foodstuff likely to fuel future planetary migration by human beings."

Two buyers attending the fair – Zhou Guoyun and Chen Hai Xin, both representing Tomku Enterprises, a Hong Kong-based food company – were keen to learn more about the protein content of quinoa. Gan answered their queries by highlighting a report that showed that the product had a 16-22% protein content compared to beef with around 20%. Clearly impressed by the figures, Zhou said: "It's the health-giving properties consumers are interested in. We are buying commercially and we want to know on their behalf."

This year's fair also included a forum area, allowing seminars and product demonstrations to be conducted. One particularly popular seminar addressed the testing and certification of TCM. This has long been seen as a pressing issue and crucial to the sector's bid to achieve the 'Modernization' billed in the fair's title.

At present, western scientists and health professionals still question the therapeutic value of Chinese medicine, saying little high quality research has been undertaken to prove its efficacy. This, however, is something the Hong Kong Testing Laboratory for Chinese Medicine (HKTLCM) is seeking to address.

According to David Chou, the lab's representative at the fair, the HKTLCM forms part of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Its chief mission is, as its name suggests, is to provide a service for the testing and certification of Chinese medicine. In other words, it sets out to assess the properties of Chinese medicine and its mechanisms for action.

Explaining the proposition, Chou said: "In the old days, a grandfather would take, say, ginseng for back problems. He would then talk about the effects, saying it had had made his back pain better.

"In our lab, we can check the ingredients and say, 'Well, in this herb or this plant, there is an anti-inflammatory ingredient. That's why back pain might be reduced.' We are adding the science."

Seeking to assess the properties of the herbs used in Chinese medicine is only one aspect of the laboratory's work. It also checks the toxicity levels of herbs and their effective quantities. For products aimed at an external market – at consumers in the US or Europe – the lab can also provide clinical evidence that a product is safe to use.

Overall, the products that sold well at the fair, the benefits emphasised by the exhibitors, and the ongoing dialogue between exhibitors and buyers, all showed the world of traditional Chinese medicine and health care is keen to address any concerns regarding the lack of clinical endorsement. It is a market fast modernising, in terms of offering consumers new products and in emphasising the different ways of harvesting more traditional products. It is also looking to reshape how herbs and plants linked with health benefits are physically consumed. The remaining challenge, however, is to educate and convince consumers, especially those outside of Asia, as to the value of such treatments.

Photo: Modernising Chinese medicine: The mission of many stallholders.
Modernising Chinese medicine: The mission of many stallholders.
Photo: Modernising Chinese medicine: The mission of many stallholders.
Modernising Chinese medicine: The mission of many stallholders.

The International Conference and Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine and Health Products 2015 was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 13-15 August.

Linda Kennedy, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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