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Three scant years ago, Shanghai celebrated the 100th birthday of one of history’s most famous junk foods — the Oreo biscuit — with fireworks on the Bund and multi-storey neon adverts projected on to skyscrapers. But now China has put Oreo on a diet.


This is a country where, within living memory, millions starved to death. People will, to this day, tell you how they ate roots or shoots or even dirt to stay alive. Little wonder the Chinese market was a pushover for the ubiquitous black-and-white sandwich cookie.


Foreign treats were seen as healthier than local snacks, because they were imported from places that did not have such a vigorous tradition of poisoning residents with tainted ingredients, as was the fad in China. When I moved here in 2008, it took a while to get used to the notion that McDonald’s was a healthy option, purely because it was less likely to be toxic. Here, when mainlanders tell you something is “healthy”, they often mean that it won’t be immediately fatal.


But in the past few years, China has begun to discover that heavy metals are not the only things to avoid in snack foods. There is that small matter of fat and sugar, too. Last week, Chinese media carried stories saying that Mondelez, the maker of Oreo, was shutting down some Shanghai production because people were going right off biscuits. The US company waffled a bit about “optimising our supply chain” and shifting production elsewhere, but the company had made clear in the past that Oreo was in trouble in China. Figures from Euromonitor show that, since the sound and light of its centenary celebration, the biscuit has lost one-third of its market share in China, from nearly 9 per cent of the market in 2012 to 6 per cent now.


So that is how Oreo ended up watching its waistline: Mondelez introduced a new “Oreo Thin”, just to woo Chinese consumers, and it did so well that they last month announced that Americans will be able to opt for the skinnier cousin too. All because of a revolution in eating habits that took decades in the west — and only a handful of years in China.

因此,这就是奥利奥如何最终注意到自己的“腰围”的:亿滋推出了一款“奥利奥巧轻脆”(Oreo Thin),专为迎合中国的消费者,而且这款饼干卖的相当不错,因此亿滋上个月宣布,美国人也将可以选择更为纤细的同款饼干。这一切都是因为一场已经在西方进行了数十年的饮食习惯革命——在中国这场革命才经历了寥寥数年。

That’s not Oreo’s only problem: many of the world’s most successful brands made it to China early and had a long run almost unrivalled, but are losing their first-mover advantage. (KFC has that problem too, compounded by a spot of bad publicity on the food quality front.)


Meanwhile, mainlanders have developed one of the most fickle palates on earth: Americans may want the same cookie Mum gave them with their milk after school; but Chinese want something new every day. Local companies are often nimbler than multinationals at introducing green tea or purple sweet potato alternatives to traditional flavours.


And cookie companies are facing competition from an even more unlikely source: home bakers. When I moved here, ovens were rare in normal homes: I figured that was why mine didn’t work too well. But now many a Chinese bride insists on having one. Sales of the countertop ovens preferred on the mainland have more than quadrupled since I started wielding a flour sifter on Chinese shores, and a 318-piece everything-you-could-ever-need baking set can be had on Alibaba’s Taobao for only 137 devalued renminbi.


For, given that the vast majority of Chinese under 30 have never known an hour of hunger in their lives, let alone survived on roots and shoots, just filling the tummy is no longer the point. They cook for fun — and for health reasons, says Qian Zhaoli, a 27-year-old marketing manager in Shanghai. She’s started baking her own rusks because her first child is teething. “I wanted her to have the healthiest ones, without any additives,” she says, adding that shop-bought rusks have such a long shelf life, and “who knows how many artificial colours and preservatives they contain?” Plus, western-style baking is far easier than cooking any of China’s complicated cuisines, she says, noting that in Shanghai most cooking is done by men.


This is not just a tale of Oreos and ovens. It is a parable for a new type of Chinese consumption: more finicky, more fickle — potentially less profitable. Anyone selling almost anything here should watch it closely. May the best rolling pin win.