Across China: Gluten-free foods yet to impress China despite bakery boom

Source: Xinhua| 2019-05-13 16:55:24|Editor: Liangyu
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by Hazza Harding

GUANGZHOU, May 13 (Xinhua) -- Gluten-free products are a common sight along the aisles of supermarkets in countries like the United States and Australia, but unlike many other West-oriented health fads, the gluten-free craze has yet to cross the ocean to gain traction in China.

Despite China's increasing bread consumption and growing awareness for allergies in recent years, local entrepreneurs in the gluten-free scene have struggled to win over the culinary-conscious Chinese. Liang Jiaxin, 40, is one of them.

In 2017, Liang opened her first vegan and allergy-focused restaurant "Brasston" in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. The gluten-free diet, Liang said, helped her overcome severe migraines caused by allergies.

The restaurant, rebranded as Rainbow Light in 2018, initially attracted mostly foreigner patrons, but over time, a select number of Chinese people began to frequent her restaurant to seek out gluten-free options.

"Through word-of-mouth, some local Chinese customers found out about my restaurant. They would come for my gluten-free food because they told me they couldn't find it anywhere else."

But to keep her business afloat, the number of Chinese regulars was not enough, and the restaurant closed earlier this year amid financial strain. "Some people would come to try something new, but then not return. There is a huge potential market for gluten-free food in China, but the awareness about its benefits is just not there yet," Liang told Xinhua.

Wang Chudun, 25, visited the restaurant after hearing about it from a friend. Despite his enthusiasm for the clean-eating approach, Wang, like many foodies in the province known for its long and rich culinary traditions, was not impressed by the novel food.

"I was not too fond of the taste. I wouldn't purposely eat gluten-free food again since I'm not allergic to wheat," Wang said.


Studies have suggested that China is not exempt from gluten allergies. A survey conducted by the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University found 6.5 percent of 62 patients suffering from long-term diarrhea had coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes gluten intolerance.

As China embraces a double-digit annual growth in its bakery industry in recent years, driven by the rising popularity of Western-style bread and cakes, this "Western problem," as some observers call it, has begun to attract more attention.

For many Chinese, allergies to conventional foods that contain gluten like wheat and soy sauce remain hard to fathom. Liang told Xinhua she came across many skeptics when running the restaurant, some questioning whether it is merely a psychological issue.

In Chinese, the term "gluten-free" is rarely used, with most people having never heard of the phrase.

Zeng Guican, 24, only began to learn of the term after working as a manager and waiter at a foreign-run restaurant that offers gluten-free options in Guangzhou. "Chinese customers have never asked me for gluten-free food. I've only been asked for it by foreigners in English," Zeng said.

Zou Lin, a physician at the dermatological department of the Southern Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine in Guangzhou, said she has seen more patients consulting about allergies in recent years. Misconceptions about the gluten allergy are common, Zou said, including the belief that it can be "rectified" through gradual exposure.

Liang's restaurant may have been ahead of its time, but she remains optimistic that the awareness for food sensitivities and allergies is slowly emerging, especially among younger Chinese.

She is now establishing a studio to instruct local restaurants on how to prepare gluten-free dishes.

"There are many people out there that don't know that the reason they might be sick is due to allergies. We need support to spread the message to help people live healthier, happier lives," the entrepreneur said.