China has given the world Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) based on the theory of Yin and Yang, or the belief that opposites balance each other. Also, based on Yin and Yang theory, China has created a variety of health exercises, the most popular being taijiquan or tai chi chuan. Thousands of years of TCM theory and physical exercises such as taijiquan have had a profound impact on the way the Chinese think about health and the methods or products that can help to keep one in tip-top shape.
Today’s Chinese women not only have these ancient lessons to draw from when going about their daily health regimens, but they also have access to a growing number of imported cosmetics, dietary supplements, fitness clubs, health conscious magazines and websites, spas, private hospitals focusing on women’s care and pregnancy, etc. These newer, more western products and services are made possible by China’s fast-paced economic growth and expanding middle class found in the more developed cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Among the most popular health concern categories for women in China are anti-aging, skincare, weight loss, detox, prenatal care and enriching the blood.
In the U.S., dietary supplements play an important role in a woman’s overall health. The entire industry is worth more than $24 billion and is estimated to have more than 60,000 individual products that contribute to health and well-being. On the other side of the world, China’s dietary supplement industry is just beginning to take shape and is estimated to have around 5000 products. The slow pace of the industry is due mainly to strict government regulations and lack of supplement knowledge among consumers. China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) is responsible for regulating the industry and is currently drafting new guidelines, which should help the industry and expand education.
Dietary supplements for women typically include calcium, fish oil, multivitamins and prenatal formulas. Most prenatal formulas are sold through the OTC drug channel and are normally prescribed by a doctor. Prenatal vitamin and mineral formulas are at the basic necessity levels. In other words, you won’t see Supplement Facts boxes listing 1200 mg of calcium, 800 mcg folic acid, 300 mg DHA, 1000 IU vitamin D, etc. At this point, higher strength formulas and custom formulas for skin, PMS, menopause and weight loss aren’t readily available from domestic companies. And only a handful of U.S. and other foreign companies have made their way into the market with higher strength and custom formulas for women’s health. However, these products tend to be a little too pricey for most consumers. For example, if a product retails for $20 in the U.S. it will retail in China for about $40 or more due to shipping, taxes and importing fees, which is price prohibitive for real market penetration.
Enter China’s entrepreneurs and startup companies keen to capitalize on growing trends in women’s health and wellness. Today it’s difficult to walk down the street in Beijing for more than a block without running into a group of teenaged salespeople with interesting hairdos attempting to herd women toward their spas. Spas or “Mei Rong Yuan” as they are called in Chinese are located on what seems every block and provide such services as facials, aromatherapy, massages, body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, anti-wrinkle therapies, etc. Like most things in China, these services run the gamut from very affordable to super expensive. Typical spas charge the equivalent of around $14 for a two-hour mask and body massage session. However, visit a spa that has invested heavily in beautiful lush décor and uses foreign branded products and the price can quickly escalate to more than $150 for the same service.
Despite China’s one-child policy, there are plenty of expecting moms. In fact, it is because of this policy that families pay particular attention to the health of mom and baby. For those with expendable income, price is of no concern when it comes to getting the best possible care and professional services during pregnancy.
As an expecting dad, I’ve become an expert on prenatal care, hospital costs and the associated services you receive in Beijing. Again, this runs the gamut from inexpensive to “I’m sorry, was that four or five zeros?” Local state run hospitals charge about $900 for all prenatal visits, including ultra-sounds and delivery of the baby without complications. However, from what I’ve seen and heard, the local state run hospitals have modeled their services after an assembly line—fast, efficient and no unauthorized personnel allowed. That means no family members, cameras or annoying husbands to get in the way of this well-oiled process. On the other side of the spectrum are the private hospitals that focus solely on prenatal care and baby delivery. Costs here for prenatal care and delivery can run around $15,000. Now for that extra $14,100, women can count on exceptional personal care and attention. Family members are not only welcome but are encouraged to join in on all checkups, free educational sessions and the delivery itself with cameras in hand. Rooms are VIP in nature and include kitchens, living rooms, flat screen TVs and enough seating for a family reunion.
Centuries of traditional Chinese culture have been passed along through music, dance, story and text to find their way to today’s modern Chinese woman. These cultural norms influence a woman’s understanding about health as well as their purchasing habits.
It is not uncommon to hear people talk about having too much heat in their bodies, which manifests in the form of headaches, ache, constipation, cold sores, common colds, etc. With heat considered “yang” in nature, the Chinese believe one should balance it by taking medicine or eating food that is “yin” in nature, such as fruits and vegetables.
In the category of anti-aging and skincare, there is one product or ingredient that overshadows all others. It can be found not only in China, but across most Asian countries.
It is called “Bird’s Nest” or “Yanwo” in Chinese. Bird’s Nest actually refers to the nests that are built by small birds called swiftlets. These birds construct their nests using saliva and other materials. According to scientific analysis, Bird’s Nest is rich in protein, carbohydrates, amino acids and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium and potassium. TCM theory claims it can boost the immune system, is nourishing to women, and is vital for improving skin. Bird’s Nest is sold by a variety of companies typically in large packages containing eight bottles resembling small jars of jam.
Another product that has been very successful in China for capturing a large portion of the anti-aging skin care market is “Tai Tai,” which is loosely translated to mean “wife.” The product is manufactured by Shenzhen Tai Tai Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. and has been a staple in the market for many years. The product comes in a large package containing liquid tinctures based on TCM herbals and is marketed toward women in their 40s. Tai Tai is widely distributed and can be found in almost every pharmacy, supermarket and health/beauty shop across China.
When it comes to enriching the blood after menses or giving birth, China has a few products that are universally known to all women: “E Jiao” (donkey hide gelatin), “Wu ji jing” (black bone chicken essence) and “Ji Yu” (fish: type of carp). E Jiao is part of TCM, and yes, it is extracted from donkey hide. The famous brand for making E Jiao products is Do E Donkey-Hide Gelatin Co., Ltd located in Shandong province. Wu Ji Jing is extracted from the bones of the black chicken. A Hong Kong-based company has a famous product using Wu Ji Jing called “Xue Er.” Many Chinese products for women’s health contain E Jiao and/or Wu Ji Jing in combination with a variety of other TCM ingredients to nourish the blood. In fact, instead of buying products with these ingredients, many Chinese will just go to the supermarket and buy a “black chicken” throw it in a pot with spices and some TCM herbs and make black chicken soup. Ji Yu or carp is also made into a soup combined with tofu as a home remedy for postpartum nutritional support.
Weight loss and ridding the body of toxins has become a popular concept for women. Not unlike the rest of the world, young women are bombarded by images of extremely thin women as the ideal. This, coupled with Chinese mens’ desire for thin women, has driven the weight loss category. Many products are formulated around a couple of essential ingredients, green tea and herbal laxatives. There are also some fiber cookies, which fill you up and decrease your appetite. For the strong willed there is always the cucumber diet where women and sometimes men will eat nothing but cucumbers. (Of course this is not healthy at all and will most likely lead to future weight gain.) Products loaded with stimulants such as caffeine are not available here. However, ephedra, which some years ago ruled the U.S. weight loss market before it was banned in 2004, is available as “ma huang” in China. But it is only used in TCM medicines for relieving the body of colds and other ailments. Luckily the Chinese know what this herb’s intended use is and understand it shouldn’t be used for purposes such as weight loss.
Chinese women aspire to the same health standards as the rest of the world. And they have a lot more cultural inspirations to draw from besides grandma’s chicken soup. For the future, foreign and domestic companies will continue to expand women’s options when it comes to choosing dietary supplements that will promote health and well-being.
Jeff Crowther has more than 16 years of experience in the natural products industry, having worked in retail sales and management, international business development and regulatory advocacy. For the last three years, he has worked full time in Beijing as the director of the Natural Products Association’s China office. In this capacity, he is responsible for working on industry matters that affect U.S.-based companies, as well as acting as a liaison for both American and Chinese companies. He can be reached at 86-10-6556-5737; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com; Website: www.naturalproductsassoc.org.cn.