Probiotics still bang on trend in China, but consumers lack product understanding - Report

By Tingmin Koe contact

- Last updated on GMT

Probiotics that are incorporated into fermented dairy and beverages are the most popular amongst Chinese consumers. ©Getty Images
Probiotics that are incorporated into fermented dairy and beverages are the most popular amongst Chinese consumers. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Probiotics, China, Dairy

Chinese consumers see health benefits in probiotics, with probiotics in fermented dairy and beverages most popular, but misconceptions about the fast-rising ingredient are also rife, said a newly released consumers report.

Published by China Food Information Centre (CFIC), the survey​ was facilitated by the country’s digital giant Tencent.

Over 70% of the 8,336 respondents acknowledged that probiotics could confer health benefits. Only 4% disagreed. 

Most of them relate probiotics to improvement of gut health, such as modulating the gut microbiome, alleviating constipation and diarrhoea, aiding digesting and promoting nutrient absorption, and alleviate bloating and abdominal pain.

Other benefits, such as promoting skin beauty, weight loss, effects on depression, diabetes, and chronic diseases, are less well-known amongst the Chinese consumers.

Nearly half of them (46%) also attach an ethnicity significance to the effectiveness of probiotics, believing that “probiotics developed in China are more suitable for Chinese.”

This shows that consumers have a greater expectation for probiotics developed by China, said the report.

What’s popular

Most of the Chinese consumers prefer probiotics products that come in the form of fermented dairy and beverages.

This is the case for 60% and 50% of the respondents respectively. There are 44% who chose probiotics in the form of health foods.

When purchasing probiotics, they are most concerned with the product efficacy, followed by the brand’s reputability, and safety.

As for retail channels, supermarkets and convenience stores are the most popular channels, with 46% choosing to buy from these stores.

This is followed by hospital and pharmacies (44%) and the report noted that online retail (30%) has become the “new retail option”​ for consumers.

As for those who had never purchased probiotics, nearly half said they would consider doing so.

Misconceptions

Although China’s probiotics market is booming, consumers are not well-equipped in terms of scientific knowledge.

One of the major knowledge gaps is not knowing the differences between probiotics, prebiotics, and lactic acid bacteria.

Only 4% can accurately differentiate between probiotics and prebiotics.

Over 60% of the respondents do not know the differences and there were 34% of them identifying lactic acid bacteria as the same as probiotics.

“Because consumers have a blurred understanding of probiotics, as such, the ‘probiotics product’ bought by certain groups of consumers could in fact be the usual lactic acid bacteria product,”​ the report said.

Lactic acid bacteria are the major end-product when carbohydrates undergo fermentation.

Whereas a probiotic refers to live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host, according to the WHO definition.

Side-effects?

Three in 10 respondents believe that probiotics intake might bring about potential side effects. 

Nearly half of them are sceptical of the product safety to a certain extent. Also, 18% of them believe that probiotics use might lead to dependence.

“Probiotics products need to undergo approval from the relevant departments before they can be sold in the retail market.

“Probiotics products that have received approval are safe for most people. However, 32% of the consumers are of the opinion that probiotics could bring about side-effects,” ​said the report.

What really matters?

Most respondents (60%) associated products with ‘live probiotics’ as more effective.

Also, there are 31% and 20% who cited bacteria count and the number of strains as the determinants of an effective probiotic product.

Less than a quarter (21%) have cited the properties and descriptions of probiotics strains as contributing to the effectiveness of a product.

“[This] shows that ‘strains uniqueness’ has yet to bring enough attention [amongst the consumers],”​ the report said.

Scientific guidance

Consumers said they hoped that the scientific industry could provide more guidance to help them make the appropriate choice when purchasing probiotics. 

Close to 80% hoped that the product marketing should stay true to scientific evidence and refrain from exaggerations. 

Others hoped that there could be more reasonable and more affordable price points.

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