HO CHI MINH CITY - There’s a familiar trend of fast food chains like KFC and Burger King entering developing countries, where citizens start to see obesity rates increase amid all the new junk food options.
This is not that story, at least in Vietnam. The junk food trend has certainly come to Vietnam already, but now there’s an even newer trend in the country, and it’s the definition of irony: more Vietnamese citizens are looking for food products that are healthful -- only to end up with products that are anything but that.
A Vietnam food puzzle
Sugar is the ingredient that perhaps best exemplifies this irony. The problem is not that Vietnamese are eating large amounts of candy and ice cream, though some are doing that. Instead, they’re buying products like fruit juices and yogurt, not realizing that all the added sugar may outweigh the health benefits of the fruit. Products are packaged in labels that appeal to citizens’ health goals.
This is part of a broader change across Vietnam, where companies are selling more ready-to-eat meals and processed foods to citizens who used to buy vegetables and eggs directly from farms. The change is leading to obvious business opportunities. For instance, the Nutifood Nutrition Food Joint Stock Company recently got an expected debt rating of B+ from Fitch Ratings, which predicts the company will profit from more Vietnamese buying health foods.
“The government has introduced initiatives to address malnutrition and stunting, whose levels remain high by global standards,” Fitch Ratings said in an explanation of its expected rating. “Fitch also expects a high birth-rate and consumers increasingly seeking convenience with nutrition will continue to drive demand for Nutifood's products, particularly its ready-to-drink products.”
Moderation is the goal
Milk and related products sold by Nutifood and its competitors highlight the balance that is hard to strike in the national diet. Vietnam for years encouraged parents to give their children milk so the next generation would be taller and have stronger bones. Today however, obesity is a bigger problem than undernourishment, having increased 38 percent from 2010 to 2014 -- the highest in Southeast Asia. That’s why Vietnam does not use the term “undernourished” but “malnourished” to describe its whole range of nutritional issues.
In other areas there’s low awareness of dietary risks, such as the overreliance on MSG and salt, usually in the form of fish sauce and soy sauce, two very popular ingredients in Vietnamese food. Sugar, however, is the more recent trend. Companies were able to influence nutritional recommendations for decades, by focusing on fat rather than sugar as a source of health complications. So Vietnamese have added sweeteners to their food and drink without a second thought. Go to a cafe, and the waiter will automatically put sugar in an order of coffee or mango juice unless the customer says otherwise. In nearby Indonesia citizens like to joke that they have their sugar with some tea, rather than have tea with sugar. Something similar could be said of Vietnam.
People have many choices
Companies like Pepsi and McDonald’s have tried to put the focus on exercise, rather than diet, for good health. Naturally active lifestyles are decreasing in Vietnam, as people move from the countryside to the cities, and from hard labor to office jobs. Citizens often get on their motorbikes to drive just one block, and walking in the cities, with 100-degree weather and few sidewalks, is hard. On top of that, citizens use new Uber-like services to have drinks or meals delivered. Researchers agree exercise and diet are both important, but the latter has a bigger impact on health.
“Vietnamese consumers care about their health more than ever,” Louise Hawley, managing director of Nielsen Vietnam, said.
That makes awareness all the more important. It is one thing to eat unhealthful food, while not caring about the effects. It is quite another thing to eat unhealthful food, however, because one thinks it’s nutritional.
The growing health concern in Vietnam has to do with not just nutrition, but also air pollution, water quality, and clean supply chains. A Nielsen survey showed health became the top concern of Vietnamese citizens in the second quarter, surpassing job security, cost of living, and work-life balance. “With the current situation relating to pollution and increased consumer awareness,” Hawley said, “health is expected to continue to be a top concern of Vietnamese consumers in the third quarter of 2019.”