Why there’s no such thing as ‘unhealthy food.’


Why there’s no such thing as ‘unhealthy food.’

Across the world, the idea of health and wellness is changing. Especially when it comes to what we eat and drink. Many factors affect this; culture, availability, values, and psychology all influence our dietary choices.  According to the WHO (World Health Organization), a healthy diet should include 5 pieces of fruit and vegetables per day, legumes (beans or lentils), nuts, and whole grains. Less than 10% of total energy intake should be from sugar, less than 30% of total intake should come from fats and we should consume less than 5g of salt a day. This is considered the global standard or a healthy diet.  

Historically, the Vietnamese diet is considered healthy. Fresh vegetables and fruits play a large part in traditional Vietnamese dishes. But in recent years, salt levels have increased.  “It could be said that Vietnamese people have too much sodium in their diet. A national survey conducted in 2015 showed an average Vietnamese adult consumes about 9.4g of sodium a day, nearly twice the recommended amount,” says Trần Quốc Bảo, head of the Non-communicable Diseases Control Division under the Ministry of Health’s General Department of Preventive Medicine.   This is due to some common misconceptions around salt intake such as, Vietnamese prefer to adjust flavor based on personal preference by using additional sauces at the table.

Why there’s no such thing as ‘unhealthy food.’

Over recent years, Vietnamese have become more interested in a holistic healthy lifestyle – this includes eating and drinking more healthily.  Digital marketing and PR company, Vero, recently published a research paper exploring these changes in Vietnam’s cultural landscape. Created in partnership with market research organization, Decision Lab, the research paper offers unique insights that analyzes the impact of COVID-19 and its effect on Vietnamese consumers product choices.  Aske Ostegaard, Co-founder & CEO of Decision Lab says “the F&B Industry is among those deeply affected by the pandemic. In 2020, the F&B industry had a total revenue of 975,867 billion VND, making up close to 16% of Vietnam’s total GDP. On average, F&B products account for 35% of a Vietnamese consumer’ spending. This made Vietnam’s F&B industry one of the most attractive in the world. Post-pandemic, the potential of Vietnam’s F&B industry remains. From 2022-2026, the industry is expected to grow by 8,65% a year, according to recent reports. This growth rate can increase 10-12%, as restaurants are quickly opening again.” 

Benjamin Petlock, USDA’s Senior Cultural Attache says: “we’ve seen more interest regarding healthy eating as consumers became more concerned about nutrition and health during the COVID-19 epidemic. Food quality and safety also remained an important component of consumer trends as people associate good quality products with a healthier lifestyle.’ 

Healthy vs unhealthy food; it’s all about a balanced diet 

Whilst this cultural shift is certainly picking up traction, Vero notes that consumers still find it difficult to eat healthily when socializing with friends or at celebratory events.  Hoai Anh Pham, Strategic Planner at Vero notes: “when it comes to eating, there is no such thing as unhealthy or healthy food – consumers are learning that a balanced diet is the best way to maintain overall health. Individuals who follow strict dietary regimes are at risk of burnout, leading to binge eating or drinking. It’s not just about what you eat but how often you’re eating it.” 

“For brands, positioning an ”unhealthy’ product as a treat, or addition to a celebration like a birthday, graduation or new job can help to appeal to consumers’ new desire to live a holistic healthy life.” 

What are consumers looking for when making food choices now?  

For both Gen Y and Gen Z, there are some standout concerns when it comes to eating healthy.  Supporting long-term physical and mental health, food source transparency, origins, and sustainability all rank highly for consumers.  

Why there’s no such thing as ‘unhealthy food.’

Nutritional value  

Consumers are paying more attention to nutritional value when choosing what to eat or drink, in order to maintain long-term mental and physical health. They are more aware of ingredients and how they can be beneficial. Nutritional value and how that impacts the body or mind are coming under the microscope. Hoai Anh Pham, Strategic Planner adds, ‘seemingly ‘unhealthy’ brands may partner with nutritionists to use synergistic ingredient combinations to create dishes that enhance the bioavailability of nutrients. Labelling on products is also important. ‘Unhealthy’ brands should be transparent and clear on promoting benefits like immunity, gut health, eye health and so on.”  

Food origin 

In a 2021 study, health and wellness are cited as the top concerns for Vietnamese consumers, followed by food safety. Food poisoning too, has been a growing concern. In 2019, 76 cases of food poisoning were reported, with 2,000 people infected, 1,918 people hospitalized and 8 cases of death. ”To combat these concerns, ‘unhealthy’ brands should look to share food origins, making sure that ingredients are fresh and sourced ethically, or organically, regardless of the final product,’ says Hoai Anh Pham.  

In order to ensure the safety of the products they are buying; consumers are moving away from traditional shopping locations. Taku Tanaka, CEO & Co-founder of KAMEREO notes that ‘Vietnamese people are switching from buying food and vegetables from wet markets to buying in supermarkets. This is especially true in Ho Chi Minh and Ha Noi where GDP per capita is much higher than other provinces. 

Availability and reach 

How consumers access food and drink is also evolving. Post-pandemic consumers across Southeast Asia are shopping online more. 44% of digital consumers across Southeast Asia spent more on packaged and fresh groceries online, with 80% of consumers indicating that they plan to continue buying groceries online. The routes to access food and drink are more varied than ever; social media platforms, delivery apps, websites, and messaging services run alongside traditional methods. Brands should look to invest in availability on all platforms, as ease and availability also influence consumer choice around food.  

Recommendations for brands 

American food has been traditionally seen as more unhealthy than other cuisines. For western or US-based brands looking to break into the Vietnamese market, adapting taste is key. As Vietnamese consumers look for healthier options, products which have less sugar appeal more.  

Customer experience is another great way to engage consumers. For location-based purchases, brands should make sure that the environment is clean, with a good atmosphere and excellent and friendly service.  

Sustainability is also key, and an area that Vero believes consumers will be looking to even more in the future. Using renewable energy, or green materials that don’t harm the planet, will make food brands seem more appealing.  

To learn more about how brands can help tap into Vietnam’s changing eating habits, download Vero’s whitepaper.