It’s Friday afternoon and I’m all too aware of the million and one things I haven’t yet crossed off my “to do” list. I’m on my lunch break slurping down noodles at record-breaking speed. The teacher to my left belches, I grab my yoghurt, she grunts and I climb the stairs back to my office, feeling drowsy after a busy morning of 4 back-to-back classes teaching 150+ 3-year-olds 1,2,3. In my haste, I trip over and drop my yoghurt. It explodes all over the stairs, splattering the banister, my shoes, and my jeans. When I reach down to pick it up, it gets in my hair too.
Prior to this unfortunate experience (which, for those interested, took almost 30 minutes and an entire toilet roll to clean up), I had not realized the extent to which yoghurt had splattered itself not only all over my life, but on the Chinese market. At the school where I work, a compulsory yoghurt is provided to all teachers and students with every meal. Messy clusters of yoghurt enthusiasts fill the aisles of supermarkets, barging one another out of the way. Gleaming yoghurt advertisements are dotted around the underground; Chinese people with bleached skin and frightening smiles gleam at me, encouraging me to consume more yoghurt.
By 2022, the dairy market in China is forecasted to reach RMB 349.7bn (£43.11bn, $55.17bn)  – coincidentally, this figure is also around the estimated price of Brexit’s divorce bill from the EU . In other words, it’s a lot of money. The three main domestic brands are 蒙牛měng niú, 伊利yī li and天润tiān rùn; domestic brands control 70% of the yoghurt market .
In light of the 2008 baby milk scandal which saw 64 tonnes of raw dairy products contaminated with toxic industrial chemical melamine, killing 6 babies and causing kidney damage in 300,000 , widespread mistrust of food safety in China is common – notably dairy.
Despite this, domestic Chinese brands are able to outmaneuver their Western competitors by marketing their products as healthy, nutritious and slimming. “Yoghurt is an area where foreign brands should have had the advantage, but they were slow to react to the market trend” (Mark Tanner, China Skinny – a marketing agency working with Chinese dairy companies) .
Increasing wealth, a demand for sophisticated, high-quality products and an attention to health have contributed to a 108.6% increase in yoghurt sales between 2013 to 2017 . A consumer survey by Mintel found that Chinese yoghurt consumers associate yoghurt with phrases such as “suitable for children and older people”, “easy to digest”, “helps boost immunity” and “nutritious” .
Studies have found factors influencing dairy consumption in China are: education, health advice, exposure to advertisements and promotions and sales (particularly within supermarkets such as Carrefour). The same study even found “higher education levels increase the probability of yoghurt (and ice cream) consumption” .
I am lucky enough to have found a lovely bunch of Chinese (and Taiwanese) natives to live with here in Shanghai. Every Monday, Derek, a translator at Blizzard Entertainment and I sit down for a UK-China cultural, language exchange. I invited him on my Chinese yoghurt journey and he accepted.
We took it seriously, made a planned trip to Carrefour at 8pm on a Friday (yes I know how to spend my weekends) and for the next two hours, conducted a ruthless tasting analysis of 10 yoghurt brands including: price, overall taste, packaging, best time of day to be consumed and a comparison of Western/Chinese preference. Western ( W ) Chinese ( C )
- 味全 Aloe (Liquid)
In a tall, silky, soft, white bottle, it is 朱一龙 (a famous actor) and chunks of stark green aloe that initially catch the eye. Taste: C: “Quite horrific, over the top and sickly sweet” W: “I opened the bottle and gagged”. Best time of day to be consumed: C: “I wouldn’t want to purchase this – maybe I’d drink it if I was distressed” W: “Never … unless I was intoxicated and needed something to induce vomit”
- 如实 Vanilla and Honey (Greek)
In a short, fat pot, decorated with a Chinese painting, hiding in the puffed up marshmallow lid lies a sachet of honey and a spoon. Taste: C: “Really nice and you can add in however much honey you want” W: “Not bad, but the consistency is odd – the yoghurt slides down the plastic and the raw yoghurt is incredibly sour” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “After a strong black coffee in the afternoon”
- 卡士 Double protein, Chai seeds and Oat (Solid)
A liquid yoghurt, the contents of this little pot were almost exploded over the living room until I realized a straw was included for the purpose of puncturing the foil and drinking. Taste: C: “I really like this; it tastes healthy because of the protein content” W: “It tastes as if someone has tipped an entire kilo of whey protein in it … this can’t be good for you” Best time of day to be consumed C&W “Bulking season. At the gym”
- 蒙牛 Old Mongolian (Very solid)
In a short, fat, turquoise pot – this yoghurt didn’t budge when we turned it upside-down. I wanted to experiment and fry it like tofu, but Derek suggested otherwise. Taste: C&W “Very bland, horrible texture. A lot of gelatin must have been used” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “Never … who buys this!?”
- 优诺 Blueberry (Solid）
The French flag in the corner of the pot promises high-quality, authentic yoghurt … and this time we were not disappointed. Taste: C “The blueberry chunks are good, and it’s creamy but not too sweet. It’s also very high in energy” W: “The blueberries are suspiciously evenly sized … are they real blueberries?” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “Anytime”
The following two brands are almost identical, and have been copying one another’s marketing for years, hence they were tasted together, and sure enough, they tasted exactly the same.
- Twin 1 畅轻 Peach and Oats (Liquid)
In a tall, white, clumsy box sits 250g of peachy yoghurt. Taste: C: “Authentic peach taste but it is very sweet so they may have used additional sweeteners” W: “Tastes like an entire peach farm was crammed into a box” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “After a stressful day”
- Twin 2 蒙牛 (sub brand of 冠益乳) Walnut and Oats (Liquid)
In a tall, white, clumsy box sits 250g of nutty yoghurt. Taste: C: “Authentic nut taste but it is very sweet so they may have used additional sweeteners” W: “Tastes like an entire nut farm was crammed into a box” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “After a stressful day”
- 碧悠 Basic (Solid)
This brand stands out as the only one to display green packaging. Taste: C: “Quite nice as a basic yoghurt” W: “The closest brand to Western yoghurt (food standards). It doesn’t leave a nasty after-taste and has the same consistency, smell and colour of the yoghurt back home (in the UK)” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “Breakfast”
- 安慕希 Strawberry and Oat (Greek)
With busy packaging and a pungent, sickly sweet strawberry smell that abuses the nose upon opening, our initial expectations were low. Taste: C: “Very, very sweet wow” W: “I can’t eat this. It is brown. Why is strawberry yoghurt brown? WHAT are those chunks floating on the surface” Taste: C&W: “Disgusting” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W: “Never”
- 明治 Bulgarian (Solid)
The only foreign brand to feature in this Chinese yoghurt taster, the Japanese branded, Greek yoghurt came in a small, dark-blue, rectangular tub – giving us the impression we were about to sample paint. Taste: C “Quite sour, but a good texture” W: “Not too bad, the texture looks what it should do I suppose” Best time of day to be consumed: C&W “If very hungry during the afternoon”
Despite many of the above proclaiming to offer health, slimming and nutritious benefits to consumers, to me many were sickly sweet, had an unholy aftertaste, and a severely unnatural texture.
As mentioned, there is a dark side to the food industry in China; some companies are tempted to cut corners by laxing crucial safety requirements in order to beat relentless market competition. In February 2011, a rumour was circulated proclaiming certain factories to add industrial gelatin, which had been refined from abandoned leather belts and shoes, was used instead of edible animal gelatin to make the yoghurt texture thicker .
China’s declaration to offer a cash reward of up to RMB 300,000 (£33,650 or $43,000) to those who can provide tip-offs (with sustained and credible evidence) of those violating food safety laws, is a testament to the severity and widespread nature such behaviour is having on the industry  and the subsequent concerns of the government.
Well aware of Western media’s obsession with reporting the bad and the ugly from China, I asked a close friend of mine to share his experience interning at one of China’s largest domestic yoghurt factories. It is true that middle-class consumers especially are more demanding than ever, forcing domestic brands to pay close attention to the quality, safety and credibility of their products.
Name: 高阳 Gao Yang (Dr. G) Relation: Dr. G and I met at Tsinghua University when I was a Chinese language exchange student and he a PhD student in Medical Imaging.
What company did you intern with?
- Name: Tianrun Dairy Co., Ltd （天润）
- Duration: Jun 2016-Aug 2016
- Region: Urumqi, Xinjiang
What was your role as intern?
I was the Assistant to the Chairman of the Board.
What was the most interesting aspect of your internship?
The most interesting was when our company leaders brought back dairy products from Russia during their business trips and invited us to evaluate them in a scientific way. We even held a mini exhibition. I had never tasted Russian dairy before that and the products were delicious.
Why do the Chinese like yoghurt, and do they prefer solid or liquid yoghurt?
It is creamy, sweet, nutritious and often it comes with flavours. Personally I like the sour taste (not in the bad way) of plain yoghurt without sugar or flavours. I think most Chinese people prefer liquid yoghurt. Everyone likes liquid yoghurt because it’s convenient. Drinking yoghurt with a straw as you walk takes one hand. Eating yoghurt as you walk takes two.
Earlier this year, a woman in Guangzhou found a condom in her yoghurt. How do you think this happened? Did you see any frisky yoghurt business at the factory during your internship?  (lol)
Wtf… I can’t imagine how that happened. (I’d like to take the editorial liberty here to say that I can think of a number of scenarios as to how this happened). This news shows a fundamental failure of that factory’s quality-control system. I suspect someone inside tried to sabotage the brand. I did not see any “frisky business” where I interned. Tianrun has a strict quality control system and it has been doing well.
China has a lot of domestic yoghurt brands; how do you think these brands can complete with rival international brands who may have stricter health regulations?
Domestic yoghurt brands might like to think about 1) lowering the cost of raw milk, 2) introduce versatile flavours (Tianrun has more than 6 flavours of yoghurt and 3) investing more in advertisements as Chinese consumers will be far more familiar with domestic brands than their foreign counterparts.
So, there you have it, a rather holistic analysis of the yoghurt market in China. Yoghurt consumers are young, educated and demanding of high-quality, nutritious products. The market is dominated by domestic brands, but that is not to say there isn’t room for western brands to make their mark – their success dependent on their entry, market and pricing strategies.
Careless mishaps in the history of the dairy industry have had devastating consequences and will not be forgotten. They serve as a reminder for the industry to keep pushing marketing boundaries, but within the realms of food safety.
From where I am sitting, having just consumed more yoghurt in two hours than I usually do in a year, the yoghurt industry illustrates the future of China’s food quality – domestic brands know exactly what their consumers want and how to entice them, but whether the yoghurt does what it says on the packaging is another story. Only time will tell whether yoghurt, the rising health fad, will negatively impact upon the health of these young, educated and sophisticated consumers.
 Consumption of dairy products in urban China: results from Beijing, Shangai and Guangzhou (Fuller et al, 2007) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8489.2007.00379.x