Coronavirus gives ‘health halo’ products a boost

Turmeric, ginger and other spices are enjoying a popularity bump during the coronavirus pandemic as consumers search for “health halo” ingredients that will boost their immune systems.

The spike in demand has been a boon for producers in Asia and beyond.

US retail sales of ginger rose 94 per cent, turmeric 68 per cent and garlic 62 per cent in the 14 weeks to June 6 compared with the same period last year, according to consumer data group Nielsen.

Olam, the Singapore-based food-trading house, said demand for Indian turmeric increased 20 per cent year on year, with ginger and black pepper from Vietnam rising 65 per cent and 15 per cent respectively.

AR Azeem, whose India-based Legend Exim sources Asian spices for international markets, said prices for the Myanmar-grown turmeric he trades had risen by a third over the past three months.

“Coronavirus has only increased the demand,” he said. Despite the disruption to supply chains “we managed somehow to stick to the buyers’ requirements”.

The concept of “health halo” foods has been around since the 1990s. From California almonds to “superfoods” such as kale and avocado, some of the health benefits have been backed by science while others are mere food fads, according to Julian Mellentin, director of consultancy New Nutrition Business. 

Bar chart of 2019 exports ('000 tonnes) showing India is the largest turmeric exporter

“With the coronavirus there has been a surge in interest in food and ingredients related to immunity,” he said.

Consumers in Europe had rushed to buy lemons and oranges for the vitamin C boost, he added, while garlic, ginger and honey had benefited from the social media spotlight. Orange juice has been one of this year’s best-performing commodities.

“We have seen some shifts to a more ‘natural’ and ‘healthier’ part of the portfolio,” said Sunil D’Souza, chief executive of Tata Consumer Products, which owns Tetley Tea.

The company’s spices range, for example, was inspired by the “intersection of traditional Indian wisdom and modern science”, he said.

Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s finance minister, last month announced a pandemic stimulus fund aimed at promoting local produce, including health foods. 

Line chart of Chinese ginger price (Rmb per kg) showing Ginger prices rally

While south Asians often drink turmeric milk to aid their immune systems, for example, in recent years celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and even the Starbucks coffeehouse chain have promoted turmeric lattes. “Turmeric latte is a big thing outside [India],” Ms Sitharaman said.

Ramesh Butani, a farmer in western India, said he increased raw turmeric sales by about 40 per cent during the lockdown, even as demand for other crops such as yams and mangoes suffered. “I am happy, I made a profit,” he said.

But exporters have not been immune to the upheaval caused by coronavirus lockdowns around the world, which have upended global supply chains.

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N Dwaraknath, whose south India-based Aravind Milk Foods exports red chillies and turmeric to the US, said his efforts to meet higher demand were thwarted by difficulties securing transport and getting customs clearance.

“There’s demand, but the problem is that because of this Covid, nothing can get concluded,” he said. “Inquiries are there, we quote our prices, but every other day a new issue arises.”

Fruit and vegetable exporter Kay Bee, which cut back sales of staples such as mangoes owing to higher freight costs, filled some of the void by dramatically increasing raw turmeric exports, chief executive Kaushal Khakhar said.

“It was a very small item for us,” Mr Khakhar said. “And now we’re selling tonnes. It was a revelation.”

Additional reporting by Andrea Rodrigues