At first glance, the World Health Store seems like any other health nut’s paradise: Shelves are cramped neck-high with supplement bars, whey protein for bodybuilders, Nature’s Bounty Evening Primrose Oil and Navitas Naturals Chia Powder. But this is Beijing, and the store that used to serve almost entirely a health-conscious foreign clientele now has so many Chinese customers that they’re nearly outnumbering foreigners. “Questions around the safety of water, food and air in China have made people much more health-conscious,” says Howard He, a store manager.
That growing fear of China’s dangerously dirty environment has given birth to one of the fastest-growing segments of China’s consumer marketplace: foods with perceived health benefits. Sales of organic foods in 2014, for example, grew at a breakneck pace of 35 percent, according to analysts at Euromonitor International, the market research company. The total health and wellness market hit RMB 637 billion — or just over $1 billion. Not huge, yet, given the size of China’s domestic market, but that’s projected by the Chinese government to continue growing by 20 percent annually.
In many ways, China is treading a path that other nations have already taken. Neighbors South Korea and Japan have had their own food scandals, involving recycled rancid oil and mercury-poisoned seafood. Britain has grappled with mad cow disease, while the U.S. has coped with everything from cantaloupes contaminated with listeria to “apple juice” for babies that contained, well, no trace of apple juice at all.