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”Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates

The famous Greek philosopher credited with the development of the Hippocratic Oath was quoted as saying this more than 2,000 years ago, around 400 BC. The statement exemplifies an understanding of the fundamental relationship between what we eat, and how we create a sustained sense of wellness and health. It is also a concept that people around the world are embracing as consumers seek to move away from processed foods and toward balanced meals made from natural ingredients.

Nestle Refocuses on Health and Wellness

This change in consumer desires recently even caused Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chairman of the world’s largest food company, Nestle, to make the following statements regarding the announced merger between Kraft and Heinz, “Kraft and Heinz products were extremely attractive in the past but are not sufficiently adapted for the future.” He continued by saying, “Americans are falling out of love with many big legacy ‘processed food’ brands and the financial markets have closely observed what is happening in our industry and acted quickly and decisively.”

Brabeck-Letmathe believes the solution to food-and-beverage-industry issues involves an increased focus on health and wellness. He concluded his thoughts by saying, “Nutrition, health and wellness is proving increasingly every year to be the main growth driver. We should be pleased that we positioned ourselves as a leader 15 years ago…”

China, Where Ancient and Modern Converge

With over 1.35 billion citizens, approximately 20% of the world population lives in China. Concern about the wellness needs of these people is therefore a high priority for the country, and it should be no surprise that a great deal of research is being conducted to address the health and nutrition of its inhabitants. In addition to the use of modern methods and approaches, innovators in China are also taking advantage of the country’s rich history in traditional medicine to produce foods and beverages to fortify the population.

One company in particular, Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries, is also taking advantage of the growth of the Chinese patenting system to stake its claim on tonic wines incorporating traditional Chinese medicine ingredients. The company only began filing patents in 2012, but since that time has experienced an astounding 274% jump in innovation activity.

“…for small business considering new markets, China is naturally a very big market.”

Video: Innovation in China: How has China become a hub for innovation?

Medicinal Tonic Wines: Current-Day Snake Oils?

Tonics of this type are fortified wines that combine the existing benefits of red wine with the enhanced benefits of added therapeutic herbs and spices. They are natural tonics incorporating traditional medicine components recognized for their ability to combat common ailments and alleviate symptoms. Additionally, tonic wines are rich in vitamins and can have beneficial effects on the circulation system and blood pressure.

In the case of the Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries publications, the added ingredients include a diverse collection of traditional remedies, in particular ginseng, pilose antler, ganoderma, black sesame, sheep liver powder, bat feces, deer antler, blueberry, acanthospermum, and perhaps most interestingly monkey legs. Monkey leg extracts are claimed to help detoxify the spleen and kidneys, and provide nourishment to the brain. Table 1 provides a short list of some of the titles associated with their patent publications from 2014. These brief descriptions demonstrate the breadth and depth of coverage being sought by Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries.

1 Healthcare wine used e.g. for tonifying liver and kidney, includes black sesame seeds, radix stellariae, divaricate saposhnikovia root, smoked plum, Chinese magnoliavine fruit, radix glycyrrhizae preparata, cocklebur fruit, and Asarum
2 Physalis alkekengi wine used for treating iron deficiency in blood and dizziness includes Physalis alkekengi, caulis piperis kadsurae, cortex ilicis rotundae, anise, Ginkgo biloba, cortex periplocae, Gentiana macrophylla and Phellinus
3 Aralia elata wine used for nourishing brain comprises Aralia elata, Nepali hog plum, walnut, longan, wild jujube seed, beach silvertop, Dendrobium nobile, costus root, Japanese rush, turmeric, sunflower and Albizia julibrissin bark
4 Wine, e.g. used for soothing liver and regulating qi, includes Athyrium multidentatum, radix linderae, flos mume, lychee seed, radix paeoniae alba, Chinese buckeye seed, goosefoot, persimmon calyx, and fructus psoraleae
5 Blueberry wine used for promoting digestion and preventing diarrhea comprises blueberry, red halloysite, ebony, Terminalia chebula, furnace soil, cinquefoil herb, malt, tuckahoe, rhizoma nardostachyos, kudzu vine and fructus amomi

Table 1: Selected Patent Titles from Harbin Shanbao Patent Filings in 2014
(Source: Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index)

Before dismissing these claims as the proverbial “snake oil,” it is important to keep in mind that snake oil itself is actually a traditional Chinese medicine from the fat of Chinese water snakes that has been used for hundreds of years, and was introduced to the United States during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. When Chinese medicine was studied in the 1980s, water snakes were found to be rich in omega-3-fatty acids. These compounds are prescribed today in modern medicines to reduce inflammation and blood pressure. Often so called “snake oil” cures are in fact chemical combinations that occur in nature as much as they can in modern 'formulated' medicines, but simply haven’t been investigated yet. As such, herbal and alternative healthcare formulations can sometimes be considered to be on an equal footing in many ways with more modern cures. They are clearly different, but often equally effective.

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Man drinking tea inside a yurt in Xinjiang, China

An Historical Tonic-Wine At-a-Glance

Looking beyond the large number of tonic wine filings by Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries in 2013 and 2014, Chinese patent filings in this field started in 1994 and have grown exponentially since 2011. While Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries may have the largest number of filings in 2014, there were more than 1,000 patent documents published in China overall.

When tonic wine filings from around the world are considered, the vast majority, ~95%, are published in China, but tonic wines also have a relatively established history outside of that country, especially in Japan where patent filings on these concoctions come from some of that nation’s largest companies. Suntory in particular has built a good sized portfolio on these beverages.

Generally speaking the Japanese appear to have recognized the benefits of tonic wines before the Chinese did, and patent publications from this country started more than a decade before they did in China. While the number of publications is much smaller in Japan, it is still sustained, albeit with sporadic interest in these spirits.

From Circulation to Congestion to Memory and More

Besides the amazing increase in publications associated with tonic wines over the past five years, it is also quite stunning to see the variety of different afflictions that are being addressed by these beverages. Figure 1 provides a list of the therapeutics areas associated with tonic wines with at least 70 publications discussing these benefits.

The leading worldwide indication associated with tonic wines is nephrotropic activity, which is associated with treatments for the kidneys. This is followed by analgesic, immunostimulant, and hepatropic activity, which is associated with treatments for the liver. Areas of major medical concern, including the central nervous system and cardiovascular ailments, are also included in the list of highest ranking uses. The complete list of therapeutic areas where tonic wines can be used to intervene on behalf of the imbiber is well over 100, and includes nearly every common ailment.

Harbin Shanbao Wine Leads the Pack

With the exception of Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries, and perhaps Suntory, the field of medicinal tonic wines is mostly made up of patent publications from individual inventors. This lack of large companies may provide an advantage to Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries as it seeks to commercialize this product, since individual inventors often lack the capital to produce and bottle beverages on an industrial scale. In any event, the pace of innovation in this area continues to be high, exemplified by the fact that thus far in 2015 there are already 189 additional patent documents that have been published on new tonic wines.

Following the consumer trends of balanced meals containing natural ingredients and the use of traditional medicine with natural formulations, it should come as no surprise that an area such as tonic wines is experiencing such a high level of growth and innovation, as suggested in the patenting activity in the field. These beverages are being used for a large variety of different ailments and are touted as a natural way of treating the symptoms of common afflictions while also nourishing the body. Harbin Shanbao Wine Industries leads the pack when it comes to this patenting activity and is well positioned to stake its claim to this market as it expands.