Healthy eating

Healthy snack box trend catches on in Hong Kong

A third snack box subscription service has launched in Hong Kong, mirroring a growing trend in the US and Britain for healthier treats

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 September, 2015, 5:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 10:19am

Like many Hong Kong professionals, Elizabeth Li worked long hours and made a couple of trips a day to the office vending machine or neighbourhood convenience store to satisfy her snack cravings. But after a few too many cookies, pretzels and potato chips, she realised all this junk food slowed, rather than spurred, her on at work.

A self-professed snacking addict, 25-year-old Li knew there are nibbles that are more nourishing for the body and mind. The problem in her office, as her colleagues lamented, was access to healthier snacks.

So Li left her economist job and started Greenberry, a snack box subscription service that delivers a package of carefully chosen munchies each month to customers' homes or offices. Earlier this month, Li began taking her first orders.

Snacks in the Greenberry box, Li says, must fulfill three or more of these criteria: organic or all-natural, no trans fat, no preservatives or additives, no hydrogenated oil, no high fructose corn syrup or refined sugar, no genetically modified ingredients, raw, gluten-free and vegetarian. Each box has at least eight snacks, a mix of crispy, crunchy, chewy, sweet and savoury, such as chia seeds, coconut water, quinoa chips, chocolate and fruit strips.

"One member of our team has a certificate in nutrition and she ensures that the snacks meet the nutrition standards," says Li, who sources the snacks mainly from Britain.

Greenberry is the latest to join the snack box delivery trend in Hong Kong that started last year. There are two other companies with a similar business concept and healthy snacking philosophy, Snacking Bird and MunchBox.

In the US and Britain, the trend has taken off in the past three years. It's a subset of a general subscription box craze that many credit the beauty product-filled Birchbox for sparking with its 2010 launch in the US. Subscription boxes deliver anything and everything, from tea and coffee to sports nutrition and fitness products, fancy cured meats, wine and baby toys to dog treats.

On the healthy snack front, Silicon Valley-based NatureBox, launched in 2012, is said to be the leader with six million boxes projected to be shipped this year.

Global snack sales amounted to US$374 billion in the year to March 2014, according to the Nielsen Global Snacking Survey published in September last year. Annual snack sales in the Asia-Pacific region came to US$46 billion, a 4 per cent increase year on year.

MunchBox co-founder Eunice Wong says part of the appeal is the element of surprise - each MunchBox has 10 to 12 snacks that are hand-picked and change each month.

While some snacks come from well-known brands, Wong says MunchBox focuses on finding products not readily available in the city. In March, Wong and business partner Jacky Lo went to Natural Products Expo West - one of the world's largest tradeshows for the natural, organic and healthy products industry - in Anaheim, California to research and sample the latest snacks.

Snacking Bird co-founder Melisa Yap says her company also seeks home-grown snack brands to support the local organic food movement.

"Awareness of healthy and organic snacks is still evolving in Hong Kong," says Yap. "We think our business has an important part to play in this evolution, particularly educating consumers that healthier snacking choices are available and that great tasting snacks and healthy ingredients are not mutually exclusive."

Yap's customers include busy professionals, fitness enthusiasts and parents looking for ideas for their children's lunch boxes. "Busy people appreciate the convenience of having a range of snacks in the one box rather than having to go to different supermarkets or health stores for their snacks," she says.

However, beware the health halo associated with terms like "organic", "natural", "gluten-free", "non-GMO" and "raw". A snack can be all these yet still high in sugar and fat. Of course, many of these snacks use only top quality ingredients and avoid nasties such as hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, which have been linked to obesity, heart disease and other ailments.

But is snacking even on healthy food good for you?

In the absence of hunger, compulsive snacking is a major cause of weight gain, says Queensland University of Technology researcher Dr Stephanie Fay in a recent article in the journal Eating Behaviours. "Excessive portion size and energy-dense foods are often blamed for weight gain but the frequency of eating is a significant contributor, too," says Fay.

A study last year by researchers at the Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam in the Netherlands found that eating more often, rather than consuming three balanced meals a day, contributes to fatty liver and increases abdominal fat, independent of body weight gain.

Other studies, however, suggest that having up to three snacks a day and ingesting a wide range of foods and drinks can have a positive impact on health - as long as the total caloric intake remains the same, says the European Food Information Council.

Compared to the gorging eating pattern, the nibbling pattern has been shown to produce a lower level of blood cholesterol, spread the absorption of nutrients more evenly throughout the day, and lead to a smoother insulin response which is beneficial for blood glucose control.

"Snacks don't have to be vilified," says E. Whitney Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University and a registered dietitian. She says the best snacks are nutrient-rich rather than calorically dense.

SCMP readers get 20 per cent off their first subscription or gift box purchase from Greenberry. Just enter the coupon code SCMPXGB during checkout at their online store

Munchbox are also offering SCMP readers a special discount of HK$50 off a purchase on their website. Simply enter "SCMP" during checkout at their online store


What's inside the healthy snack boxes?

Snacking Bird from HK$165 a box

What's the deal? Started in June 2014 by married couple Cecil and Melisa Yap, who were inspired by requests from relatives and friends to bring healthy snacks back from their travels. Marketing itself as "a box of happy", it offers eight types of subscription services that deliver 15 snacks a month for office workers.

We tried it: We went for Feeling Fly (HK$225) with 10 snacks. Some products were hardly special (such as granola and rice chips), but we liked the Bare Fruit Organic Mango Chunks (baked fruit, no sugar added) and Fairtaste Organic Cashew Nut Brittle (made in Hong Kong, organic).

MunchBox from HK$158 a month

What's the deal? Founded in January by former lawyers and co-workers Jacky Lo and Eunice Wong after too many late nights snacking on junk food in the office. The boxes are organic, natural, non-GMO and trans fat-free.

We tried it: We were sent two complimentary boxes of snacks. Some were intriguing, delicious snacks (Ocean's Halo Seaweed Chips, ips All Natural Egg White Chips and Living Intentions Gone Nuts! sprouted raw nuts) but also questionable ones (GH Cretors popcorn and YummyEarth gummies).

Greenberry from HK$193 a month

What's the deal? Started in September by sisters Elizabeth and Jade Li. There are two box options with at least eight snacks in each: "Wellness" and the child-targeted "Darlings".

We tried it: We were given a complimentary Wellness box. While many of the products are readily available at supermarkets, the yeasty-flavoured inSpiral crispy purple corn kale chips was special.