There is nothing quite like an infectious virus-turned-global-pandemic to force people to dramatically transform their lives. For millions of denizens around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped through predictable daily routines like a tornado and became both a wake-up call and a call to action.
And nowhere has this translated more palpably than in the arena of health. While being physically active is one component of this, eating healthy is just as – if not more important – in ensuring that people are able to live their healthiest lives.
And the data seems to indicate that the pandemic caused a seismic shift in eating patterns in Malaysia, beginning with the first movement control order (MCO) in March 2020 when fear and paranoia were at an all-time high.
In fact, the results of the MyNutriLife Covid-19 online survey uncovered that during the MCO, 41% percent of respondents perceived their eating patterns to be healthier.
This is particularly heartening, given that data from the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey showed that 50% of the adult population in Malaysia is either overweight or obese.
In reality though, eating healthy is easier said than done. The vagaries of daily life – whether that is the stress of working, raising a family, commuting or an overall lack of time – can cumulatively make the task of preparing healthy meals virtually impossible. The other big roadblock is that many people simply don’t know what constitutes a healthy meal in the first place.
Which is why an increasing number of Malaysians have turned to the services of healthy food delivery services – especially those that offer portion-controlled meals alongside weight loss and fitness maintenance plans – to kickstart their health journeys.
The health spurt
“Before the pandemic, our growth was quite stable – every year we had 30% to 50% growth. And 90% of our sales came from corporate events, so we didn’t really focus on individuals.
“When the MCO first started, companies shut down so I expected our sales to be about 10% of what we were previously doing, but instead orders shot up by over 200% - it was totally beyond my expectation,” says Shyan Ow, the founder of healthy food delivery service GoClean, which has been around for eight years.
According to Ow, much of this interest can be attributed to the fact that during the various lockdowns, people spent a lot of time at home and started focusing on their eating habits. Many consequently discovered health coaches on social media channels and started emulating what they taught, which means the healthy eating habit developed very, very quickly.
“After the MCO, we became very focused on individual sales and based on a year-by-year comparison, sales have gone up 600%,” he elaborates.
Ow’s views are echoed by the ebullient Samantha Ng, the co-founder of Wise Crafters, one of the first healthy food delivery services in Malaysia to offer personalised plant-based meal plans.
“I think the pandemic has really helped businesses like ours a lot, because healthy food delivery services offer a convenient solution as more and more people embrace food delivery.
“And on top of that, people have definitely become more health-conscious, so these targeted portion-controlled nutritionist-backed meal deliveries are becoming more and more popular as opposed to conventional healthy food, because businesses like ours offer functional meals that meet people’s health goals,” she says.
Although the first MCO hit Ng hard as she was forced to pivot from a kiosk-based outlet to an online delivery model, Ng’s data shows that last year, Wise Crafter’s revenue increased by a whopping 92%.
This increase in interest in healthy food delivery services isn’t just limited to more established players. Even newbies to the scene have seen a dramatic surge in market penetration and growth.
Faeznur Farok, better known as Benny, runs FitBox Meals, which started operating as an online delivery healthy food package service during the first MCO. Although Benny says she had to navigate unfamiliar terrain when she launched her website during a global pandemic, sales have been very, very encouraging.
“Oh yes, people are definitely more health-conscious now, so our sales have increased by 60%,” she says.
How they started
Many of the healthy food delivery providers that focus on targeted fitness, weight loss and other health goals, started out in a fairly organic fashion.
Ow for instance was an auditor-turned-personal trainer who jumped into the fitness industry a decade ago. He quickly realised that there was a demand for healthy food and launched a café with a partner. The café failed after nine months of operation but this turned out to be serendipitous for Ow.
“We couldn’t afford to lose more money with the café so we had to shut it and I was very sad and frustrated. But soon after that, I was involved in a photo shoot at the gym I was working at and I had prepared healthy food for myself and one of my colleagues asked if I could make some more for her.
“So GoClean started by accident. I made the food for my colleague and the next day, I got 20 orders and because I was still renting the café space, I ended up turning that into our central kitchen. And our orders expanded from one WhatsApp group to many other WhatsApp groups and now a proper website,” says Ow.
Ow’s story shares a similar trajectory to Benny, a full-time fitness instructor who owns gyms in Mont Kiara, Cyberjaya and Johor. Benny’s initial business started out with her cooking portion-controlled meals for her own clients. But when gyms were forced to close for a lengthy period of time during the height of the pandemic, she quickly pivoted and launched an e-commerce site for FitBox Meals.
“During the pandemic, we expanded our market from only clients in our three gyms to people in KL, Selangor and Putrajaya,” says Benny.
Ng meanwhile was motivated to start Wise Crafters as a means of giving her father a reason to continue to stay in the Klang Valley.
“In 2017, my dad underwent heart surgery and the doctor advised us to take good care of his diet. He lives alone in Ipoh, Perak and I live in Petaling Jaya, Selangor so I was thinking of ways to keep him with us, knowing it is not easy for a senior citizen to start a new life in a new city.
“At the time, I was a breastfeeding mother, so I used to make and bring overnight oats to work to refuel after every nursing session. My colleagues saw me doing that and asked if I could make it for them too. So I roped in my dad to help me start up this small new business – it was something for him to focus on,” she says.
As Ng was still working full-time, she didn’t pay much attention to the business and eventually her father complained that sales were poor. So Ng got to work and joined a few local bazaars, where response was very good. Spurred by this success, she quit her job and opened a kiosk in Damansara Uptown, which flourished until the pandemic hit.
When the kiosk proved untenable, Ng got to work transforming the business into an online delivery platform. Now, she has a central kitchen in Bandar Sunway and a nutrition team, production team and operations team to help her run the business.
What they offer
Unlike many platforms and delivery services that serve more generalised healthy food – Wise Crafters, GoClean and FitBox Meals all offer portion-controlled, diet-specific meals that are designed by nutritionists and often target specific goals – whether that is weight loss, a health reset or even fitness maintenance.
Wise Crafters for instance is very unique in that it offers personalised plant-based meal plans curated based on a person’s BMI and exercise routine. Each individual plan is tailor-made with the help of a nutritionist and is designed to meet customers’ specific goals, whether that is weight loss or keeping fit.
The weight loss plan for instance is a low-calorie plan that clocks in at 1,200 calories to 1,600 calories a day, with plenty of fibre-rich meals. A 20-day plan includes four daily meals, i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.
In putting together their plant-based menu, Ng and her team have devised a series of interesting whole food meal options including masala chickpea oats, tempeh rendang, tortilla shells stuffed with vegetables and cheese, kefir-based drinks and the brand’s signature overnight oats.
“Why we are so into this is because a plant-based diet can help people achieve their health goals in a really cost and time-efficient way.
“Also we did some research and found that Malaysians are only consuming an average of eight grams of fibre a day and that is the main reason for an overweight population.
“So in our meal plans, we have increased fibre intake to 30 grams a day, by incorporating wholegrain quinoa, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, so this is why our meals can help customers shed unwanted fat,” she says.
In fact, according to Wise Crafter’s recent impact report, in 2021 alone, the company helped their clients lose 3,438kg of unnecessary fat!
GoClean’s ever-changing menu is devised via constant collaboration between Ow and his nutritionist and chef who all work together to create healthy meals for customers looking to amp up their health levels or lose weight.
Meals on the platform cover the gamut from Chinese, Korean, German and Japanese cuisine with meals like fajita chicken with baked pumpkin, kungpow tofu, miso-glazed mackerel, lemongrass pandan chicken and a whole lot more.
The brand has options for daily meals as well as subscription packages that range from five to 20 days (with weight loss options that feature reduced calorie meals).
“A lot of the dishes on the menu are inspired by my eating adventures at restaurants. After eating a nice meal, I will try to recreate it and then I will go to the central kitchen and tell the chef the recipe and ingredients and the nutritionist will advise on carbs, proteins and micronutrients and after a few rounds of R&D, the new dish is created.
“We also try to make all our dishes interesting but use healthier ingredients or techniques, like for our mamak fried chicken, we use a combi air-fryer to make it healthier and a lot of people say it is very crunchy! And instead of using coconut milk for our curries, we use yoghurt,” says Ow.
While Fit Box Meals originally started with Benny cooking all the dishes, she has since hired two chefs to do the cooking and consults with a friend who is a nutritionist to ensure the meals meet health targets.
“We have 21 frozen meals for people to choose from. We calculate proteins and carbs and get the calorie content but we also try to get the most taste out of our meals.
“So we have options like duck salai cili padi, Thai green curry, tom yam chicken and we even have nasi lemak with brown rice, because these are all things Malaysians love to eat,” says Benny.
Who is ordering these meals?
The demographic of people that seem to be ordering these targeted healthy meals is broad and stretches across both genders.
“For us, we are quite focused on designing meals for the female segment – that is a priority because most of customers are female. So our goal is for customers to achieve their health goals, whether that is weight loss, better digestion or a healthy reset – those are the three key areas that we are focusing on,” says Ng.
Benny meanwhile says her core customer base is composed of men who do not exercise.
“The market is very big but we focus on people who want to kick start their fitness journey and don’t know how to and also busy people who don’t have time to cook. Our data shows that our main demographic is male office workers aged between 30 to 40 who don’t really exercise but want to eat healthy,” says Benny.
GoClean’s Ow meanwhile says most of his customers are made up of people who just want to eat healthier overall, although he says there does seem to be a trend of people opting for weight loss plans after major festivals.
“The period after CNY, Hari Raya and Christmas are peak periods for our weight loss plans – you can tell people have been overindulging,” says Ow, laughing.