Health food start-up Wholly Moly aims to shake up the Chinese diet, swapping rice for American wholemeal oats

·4-min read

A Chinese start-up is on a mission to upend the nation’s traditional diet with North American oat after raising millions of dollars in funds.

Wholly Moly, founded in 2017, produces powdered drinks and instant porridge made of oat bran – the outer casing of oats that is rich in fibre but contains little calories – sourced from the US and Canada.

The Shanghai-based start-up said it has just raised several million dollars of Series A funding from C Ventures, a venture capital fund founded by Hong Kong billionaire Adrian Cheng Chi-kong.

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The investment will help the company expand in China’s booming health food market, as it aims to transform whole grains into trendy food choices that may appeal to the younger generations and improve China’s staple diet – one that is heavily reliant on carbohydrates in the form of white rice and other refined grain.

“China has a severe lack of wholegrain food options,” said Claire Fang, founder and chief executive of Wholly Moly, in a recent interview. “We want to introduce [whole grains] into young people’s diet in a way that is easy for them to embrace.”

The market for natural health food – defined as packaged food made from natural ingredients with nutritional benefits and free from artificial additives – is forecast to expand to 184 billion yuan (US$26 billion) in value by 2022, growing at an annual rate of 12 per cent since 2017, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Behind the fast growth is a generation of young Chinese consumers who are paying more attention to the quality and health benefits of food products as their incomes expand, a trend only likely to accelerate after the Covid-19 pandemic.

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A low intake of whole grains is among the top dietary risk factors for deaths globally, according to a study published in leading medical journal The Lancet last year.

Wholly Moly, which generates 90 per cent of its income from e-commerce channels including a store on Tmall, sees its revenue tripling this year from last year, after achieving over 100 million yuan in sales in 2019.

Fang says her ambition is to build Wholly Moly into “the Nestle of China,” a reference to the Swiss firm that is currently the world’s largest food and beverage company.

Wholly Moly works with farms and milling factories in the Midwest and northern US as well as southern Canada, because the oats harvested there are more aromatic and chewy than cheaper oats planted in China or Australia, according to Fang.

Only a small portion of its products was hit temporarily by China’s increased tariffs on US imports during the trade war that has raged for the last two years, she said.

“Our investment in Wholly Moly will fuel the company’s growth in the global market and reshape the new generation’s dietary trend,” said Cheng.

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