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China's food safety watchdog just cracked down on a new trend in China: juice packaged in fake medical blood bags. The drinks, priced in the $3 to $5 range, were inspired by U.S. TV hits popular with pop culture-savvy young consumers. One was called the Vampire Diaries Drink. Some had a blood type printed on the packaging or could be sipped through IV tubing.
While the burgeoning vampire-beverage industry is no more, there are plenty of other intriguing products still out there in China, filling every conceivable consumer niche in a nation of 1.35 billion. Here are seven of the most fascinating ones – and if some seem odd, keep in mind that certain Western products seem equally bizarre to Chinese consumers (like spray-on tans and blue cheese.)
Two years back, an unusual sight started popping up in the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao: bathers wearing brightly colored balaclavas. The sun-protection masks sell for around $2 and cater to people trying to avoid tans, which are associated with farming and other outdoor labors. Sunscreen isn't as ubiquitous here, and many people think it's more effective just to cover up instead. Plus, the masks – dubbed "face-kinis" in the foreign media -- apparently protect against jellyfish.
Anti-radiation pregnancy smocks
Many pregnant women in China buy specially lined smocks said to protect their unborn babies from radiation from computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices. They often sell for around $130 and are decked out with ribbons and bows, as are most maternity clothes here. There's been a debate about the smocks since a 2012 TV interview with a scientist who warned they could trap harmful radiation inside them. Chinese maternity-wear makers denied the claim. The report sparked a panic, but the smocks are still a common sight in China.
Bird's nest soup, a delicacy popular in China and other Asian countries, is sometimes called the "caviar of the East." Asian swiftlets make nests from their own saliva, and aficionados soak them to turn them into soup. The nests, which don't have much flavor, are believed to boost the immune system, encourage cell growth and beautify the skin. On China's Tmall e-commerce site, one ounce of Chai Foo brand bird saliva brand costs about $54.
Canned fresh air
Clean air is precious in Chinese cities, where people have apps on their smartphones to check the pollution level and wear face masks when the air gets bad. Last year eccentric Chinese recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao (the same guy who wanted to buy The New York Times) started selling fresh air, for about 80 cents a can, to make a point about the country's bad air quality. The product came in different scents, including "pristine Tibet" and "post-industrial Taiwan," and it sparked several imitators.
Zany potato chips
Visitors to China discover a whole new world of industrial flavoring. Cucumber-flavored Lay's potato chips are classic here. Other innovations from Pepsico's Lay's brand include Hot & Sour Fish Soup, and Numb & Spicy Hot Pot.
In China, Mondelez makes Oreos in flavors from green tea to something called "Birthday Cake." In the summer, a favorite popsicle flavor is green pea.
Parasitic fungus cream
L'Oreal-owned local brand Yue Sai offers skin products enriched with cordyceps, a parasitic mushroom that is prized in Chinese traditional medicine. The cream is said to make skin smoother and tighter.
L'Oreal puts heavy focus on research and innovation in China, and its localized touches have helped make the company the market leader in skincare products here. This year it bought a Chinese company called Magic Holdings, which specializes in the growing market for facial masks – one popular mask contains snail slime.