Can food and drink support Thailand’s mental health crisis?

Can food and drink support Thailand’s mental health crisis?

Rashmika Khanijou, Senior Food and Drink Analyst, Mintel Reports Thailand
Rashmika Khanijou, Senior Food and Drink Analyst, Mintel Reports Thailand

Thailand is currently witnessing a critical shift towards mental health awareness. While historically perceived as taboo in many markets, the prevailing attitudes are evolving.

Mintel research reveals that mental wellness is an issue that is coming to the fore among Thais with nearly half (45%) agreeing that mental wellness is becoming a bigger priority for them. This indicates the growing need for mental health support in Thailand and it's something that cannot be overlooked.

As mental health issues become more prevalent and receive more spotlight in the media, on social channels and in popular culture, Thai consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their mental wellbeing. However, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Ukraine conflict is causing financial distress for many, with 77% of Thais saying they have been affected by rising prices (i.e. inflation), according to the Mintel APAC Economic Tracker.

Stress, exacerbated by financial instability and future uncertainties, has emerged as the primary mental health concern among 46% of Thai consumers. Other prevalent concerns include insomnia, anxiety, loneliness, lack of confidence and burnout.

Not only are Thais becoming more aware of their mental health, but they’re also taking responsibility for it. Mintel research shows that half of Thais (51%) actively seek ways to reduce stress. Thais rely on a range of food/drink to support mental wellness, with juices at the top (71%) followed by other indulgent comfort food like salty snacks (62%) and ice cream (61%).

However, the approach to food and drink as mental health support varies across age groups, reflecting different generational needs and preferences.

Holistic Nutrition Seekers

The notion of healthy ageing in Thailand is evolving. Today, many Thai consumers take a holistic, proactive and ongoing approach to health and wellness. Mintel refers to this group as ‘holistic nutrition seekers’ - invidicuals who believe that food and drink can improve mental wellness and place strong emphasis on ‘food for the mind’. 

This is particularly the case among Gen X (aged 43-58 in 2023) with 51% agreeing that mental wellness is becoming a priority for them. However, 45% of holistic nutrition seekers report feeling emotionally distressed. 

Dietary fibre can facilitate healthy ageing, and high-fibre food has been found to lift the mood. Nearly half (46%) of Gen X agree that a healthy gut leads to a good mood. As holistic nutrition seekers, they also have increased awareness of nutritional psychiatry and the mind-body link, particularly regarding innovations along the gut-brain axis. As such, spotlighting high-fibre ingredients in messaging is ideal for grabbing the attention of older Thai consumers.

Emotional Indulgers

On the other end of the spectrum,  Gen Z (consumers who typically identify as those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s) is the loneliest generation.  According to Mintel research on attitudes towards mental health, 38% of Thai Gen Zs experience loneliness (versus 27% of consumers overal). Despite being the age group least likely to describe their mental state as ‘good’, Gen Z are also less likely to prioritise mental wellness. 

Unlike older consumers, who are more likely to be drawn by specific product claims, Gen Zs and Young Millennials (aged aged 27-42 in 2023) rely on sentimental experiences to enhance their state of mind including attending entertainment events (57% and 55% respectively) and playing video games (52% and 45% respectively). They are triggered by food and drink brands that can draw on their lifestyles in positioning for mental wellness. Sensory and emotional cues through flavour and aroma that trigger nostalgia can also appeal; this could be as simple as a flavour that reminds them of a trip abroad, of which they hold happy memories. 

While comfort food is a major trend for supporting mental health across the board, younger Thais take a less holistic nutritional approach. For example, a significant proportion of Thai women aged 18-24 turn to indulgent comfort food like salty snacks (73%) and chocolates (72%). According to an article published in UTHealth Houston, comfort foods are typically high in fat or sugar, energy-dense, and may have relatively low nutritional value; but some foods may trigger an emotional response or a temporary feeling of stress relief and may release dopamine, which plays a role in how humans feel pleasure.

The Role of Brands 

As mental health becomes less taboo, consumers expect brands to tackle this topic directly. Nearly a third (31%) of Thai consumers are interested in a diverse array of snacks designed for mental wellness. In line with Mintel’s 2023 Global Food and Drink Trend Unguilty Pleasures, brands can position pleasurable food and drink as necessary self-care components in difficult times, thus strengthening their market position.

Most importantly, brands should uphold their value proposition and demonstrate how they can help solve a problem for their target market. It is vital to strike a balance between ethical and commercial considerations.

While food and drink cannot cure mental health issues, their role in offering mental support (e.g. moments of comfort), cannot be underestimated. After all, these small moments of joy can inspire hope and respite in challenging times. 

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