China’s Health and Wellness Craze Fuels Demand for Low-Cal Mooncakes

A single, fist-sized portion of the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival treat, the mooncake, can cost as much as $12 on average, but what’s more striking is its calorie count: the dessert can contain between 400 and 1,000 calories. With an increasing number of wealthy Chinese consumers concerned about their health, hotels and restaurants are making an effort to transform mooncakes into a pleasure consumers need not to feel so guilty about eating.

Late last month, the Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety issued a warning on the health risks of consuming mooncakes that were high in fat, sugar and sodium. After doing a study on more than 50 brands of mooncakes (brands not revealed), it was found that the recently popular snow skin mooncakes generally had the most sugar, with one serving carrying 42.7 grams. The 100-gram mooncake with the most sodium had 376 milligrams of it. The center suggested that Hong Kong consumers should eat one-fourth of the regular-sized mooncake, but for many in Greater China, mooncake consumption has always been an affair of limitations. Dubbed “China’s fruitcake,” mooncakes are often snubbed for being too sweet in a society that commonly avoids overly sugary foods.

Consumer habits like those of Yangbei He are thus fairly standard—she said she normally eats one to two mooncakes a year. “I feel like it’s easy to gain weight [from eating them], and the traditional mooncakes just taste so-so, so I’d rather save my calories for other desserts,” she said.

Yangbei said she does make exceptions for new and interesting flavors, of which there are plenty this year. Many luxury hotels and bakeries have resorted to filling their mooncakes with exotic ingredients to reignite consumer interest after the anti-graft campaign left luxury hotels struggling to make sales. This has left room for a span of exotic creations, ranging from the most decadent like chocolate lava cake, to the other end of the spectrum—gluten free, organic, or incorporating less fattening foods like pumpkin.

The growing health and wellness trend in the mainland has coincided with an increasing demand for the latter, according to Wei Wei Saw, director of communications at Kerry Hotel, Beijing. “We do notice that nowadays guests are favorable towards flavors that are less sweet and healthier,” she said. “As such, we do offer sugar-free options, such as the sugar-free pumpkin.” Four Seasons Hotel Beijing added a sugar-free chestnut mooncake to their menu this year, and other hotels have been resorting to offering packages of bite-sized mooncakes, such as the The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong’s mini egg custard mooncakes. Last year, some hotels even saw health-conscious bosses simply buying gym passes for employees.

Shirley So, co-founder of Beijing’s Glo Kitchen and Fitness said she has been seeing a lot of big orders, specifically from fitness and health care companies, for their healthy mooncakes. Glo replaces cane sugar with honey and the traditionally oily pastry with sweet potato flour. So said she thinks consumers in general “don’t really go out of their way to to choose healthier options” because many of them are simply eating what their companies gift them. But the option, at least, is there.

“There are definitely a lot more healthy mooncake choices,” she said. “It’s part of the healthy lifestyle movement.”

There are also consumers who want to be absolutely sure about what they’re putting into their body. Sara Li, who runs a bakery on Taobao that sells homemade hawthorne fruit jam, peanut butter, and chili sauce, started making her own mooncakes filled with her own red bean paste concoction this year. She said she may start selling them online in the future, but for now she only shares the no-bake desserts with family and friends.

“My parents and I do cut back for health concerns, if you compare it with our consumption years ago,” she said. “But this year, I made them myself instead, so there’s less sugar, oil and no additives.”

Yet, when it comes to conscious consumption, Joel Shuchat, founder of a Beijing-based boutique hotel, The Orchid, whose restaurant Toast produces mooncakes with lotus and duck egg, tahini fudge, and peanut butter chocolate fudge, has a different take on the matter.

“What’s the point of healthy mooncakes?” he said. “Like, who cares? The point is edible.”

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