China: new customers for dumplings and buns

China’s tradition with dumplings is reported to date back almost 2,000 years but frozen ready-prepared options have only been available since the 1990s. Traditionally, the preparation of dumplings, buns and other similar accompaniments was one of the weekly household chores but, within the past 30-40 years, economic development has led to greater access to freezers in the home, while an improving cold chain has also contributed to revolutionizing the possibilities for ready-made products.# China: new customers for dumplings and buns.

While the faster pace of urban life has also helped to generate significant interest in convenient products of this kind, ready-prepared foods have not been without their problems. The category has long suffered from a relatively poor image with regard to a lack of freshness, while the dumplings sector was also hit by contamination scandals in 2011 and again in 2019 when there were reports of African swine fever found in frozen products.

A boost from COVID-19

Recovery from this latest setback has been rapid, however, and was perhaps surprisingly driven by COVID-19. The crisis resulted in multitudes of “homebound” consumers seeking quick and instant foods that were easy to store and simple to cook and frozen prepared foods were found to fit these needs. Their convenience benefits won over many of those who previously considered such products to be unhealthy and lacking in freshness.

Retaining these new customers going forward will be a challenge, however, and could require a stronger focus on innovation. Already, the market is responding to increased demands for convenience, with penetration of “microwaveable” claims more than doubling from 5% of NPD in 2015 to 11% in 2019, but premiumization could also become more important as the category responds to the demands of its expanded customer base.

Innovation trends

Overall, launches of dumplings, steamed buns, wontons and glutinous rice balls rose at a CAGR of 12% over 2015-2019, with dumplings (jiaozi and zongzi) accounting for almost two-thirds of launches. Steamed buns represented a further 17% and have been showing the strongest and most consistent growth in activity.

Genuine innovation within these very traditional categories remains rare, but there are several trends that can be identified within recent activity. For example, while pork remains the most popular filling and was present in 63% of all new products launched in 2019, fish and seafood ingredients have been gaining ground (either in place of or in conjunction with pork), while vegetables are also being used more widely for a healthier profile. Egg yolk is another on-trend flavor throughout Asia at present and is featuring more widely in this market.

Breaking with tradition

Western influences are also evident, with some products fusing Asian and Western tastes for novelty as well as a high quality image. Premiumization is also being demonstrated in the use of more specific ingredient types (e.g., named varieties of mushroom), while spices and seasonings are starting to find favor as a way to add taste value and novelty.

Adding value will remain important going forward, particularly for those who may be new to the category. As well as continued innovation in fillings, innovators could also explore opportunities in the use of new shapes for novelty, adjustments to texture (e.g. crispy products) and the introduction of alternative grains alongside or in place of traditional wheat and rice. With new customers to target, it could be time to break with tradition and branch out a little more.

Traditional Prepared Foods - China is a new Category Insider report from Innova Market Insights. It brings together analysis of consumer research, new product trends, category drivers and industry structure to demonstrate how the category has been evolving and to suggest where future opportunities can be found.

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