Taste and price: Why protein powder continues to take centre-stage in China's sports nutrition market

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Protein powder is more popular than other forms of sports nutrition product in China due to its taste and competitive pricing, according to industry experts. ©Getty Images
Protein powder is more popular than other forms of sports nutrition product in China due to its taste and competitive pricing, according to industry experts. ©Getty Images

Related tags Taste Price Sports nutrition China

Taste, price and consumer understanding are the driving forces behind the booming sales of protein powder in China, according to leading industry players.

In the recent Double 11 sales, US sports nutrition brand Muscle Tech took the top spot at the sales chart. Supporting its success was the phenomenal sales of its whey protein powder.

According to statistics from Tmall, its Platinum Whey Powder (5.5pounds) was the best selling product, hitting a pre-event order of RMB$7m (USD$1.01m).

NutraIngredients-Asia​ spoke to industry players to find out more about the sports nutrition sector in China.

Oliver Lu, general manager of Nutrition Depot, said that product taste and price were crucial factors.   

The protein powder surpassed all other forms of sports nutrition products in China, occupying about 70% of China’s sports nutrition market, he said.

“On average, a box of 12 protein bars costs RMB$200, while a tin of protein powder that is 5 pounds (2.27kg) heavy will only cost RMB$300 to RMB$500,”​ he said.

“12 protein bars will be finished within a few days, while a tin of protein powder can last for one to two months.”

As for the taste, he said that the Chinese consumers usually find protein bars, which usually contain sugar replacers, too sweet for their taste buds.

“For brands to grow, they must take note of the product taste and the selling price must be competitive.”

Jeff Jiang, the CEO of Singapore-based dietary supplement firm Avida Health also concurred with Lu, highlighting that taste, price, product functionality, are crucial selling points.

“Protein powder covers a wide range of functionality. It can function as a meal replacement, for building body fitness, and for weight management etc. Whereas for protein bar, consumers have a limited understanding of its functionality and generally see it as a type of energy bar.

“They also find protein bars too sweet-tasting and as such, not as healthy as protein powder.”

While the firm itself produces its own sports nutrition products, it is also a distributor for major brands in China.

UK brand My Protein is a brand that it distributes. Out of the range of My Protein products that it sells in China, 97% of the SKUs are protein powder, while the remaining 3% are protein bars, tablets, and capsules, again attesting to the popularity of protein powder in China.

For protein powder, the original, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana flavours are most popular in China, he said.

Making sports nutrition a general food

Most Chinese consumers see sports nutrition as a multi-purpose functional food, instead of just a body-building product, according to both Lu and Jiang.

Jiang further outlined three key demands that Chinese consumers look out for when buying a sports nutrition product.

First, consumers do not necessarily consume sports nutrition products for body-building, but more for general health, hoping to achieve “a healthy and nice body”.

Second, most consumers take sports nutrition protein products as a form of meal replacement to avoid the intake of carbohydrates.

“Consumers who want to control their weight take protein in place of carbohydrates.

“Also, as modern lifestyle is hectic, some prefer to take protein for breakfast since it is more convenient.”

Third, there are consumers who supplement their diet with protein powder, as they see it as a good source of nutrition.

Foreign Vs Local

Young Chinese consumers are open-minded and do not necessarily prefer foreign brands more than local brands, Jiang said.

Crafting an attractive narrative for the product is a strategy for brands to stand out from competing brands, according to his observation.

“The young people are open-minded, they are not fixed on a particular brand and so a brand’s popularity depends on its communication and marketing strategies.

“For foreign brands like My Protein, Muscle Tech, and Muscle Pharma, they are popular because there are many stories embedded in these brands and the young people like the brand image.”

Foreign products, when entering the Chinese market via the cross-border e-commerce route instead of the traditional import route, are also cheaper, which adds to their attractiveness as well.

Lu, on the other hand, said that the Chinese consumers were particularly interested in foreign brands when it comes to sports nutrition products.

He believes that when market regulations become more favourable and fair to imported goods, foreign brands will stand an even higher chance of excelling in China.

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