"Please let me have a packet of latiao to comfort myself," "What is the feeling of staying with someone that you don't like? Not wanting to share any latiao with him," "Hey, if you meet someone who sells latiao for living, please marry him!" That these phrases were ubiquitous online in 2016 showed the massive popularity of the snack food latiao, literally "spicy sticks."
This junk food "delicacy" is made from gluten, the stuff that makes bread dough chewy.
These latiao, which are often of perilously low-quality, are commonly sold at roadside stands for as little as 0.5 yuan (.08).
Although the food authorities have launched several crackdowns on substandard latiao, similar spicy junk and other shoddy snacks are still common.
They are especially popular in rural China where they threaten the health of millions of children.
China has 140 million rural children, among whom around 9 million have been "left behind" by their migrant parents.
Apart from enhancing food safety regulation enforcement in rural areas, Chinese experts have called for including dietary knowledge into the country's compulsory education curriculum.
Salty and substandard
In interviews with teachers in rural parts of Central China's Hunan and North China's Shanxi provinces, the Global Times was told that "0.5 yuan snacks" could be seen in almost every store in local villages.
Children are especially interested in buying latiao, dried tofu, ice lollies and brightly-colored soft drinks. Many of them lack detailed product information.
Peng Yala, professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the Renmin University of China, has been conducting research in 12 rural schools in Jiangxi, Henan, Hebei, Sichuan and Shanxi provinces for three years. Her team found that food safety problems are extremely serious in rural areas, especially among the left-behind children of migrant workers.
Peng told the Global Times that of the 30 brands of latiao they probed, 30 percent were substandard and featured false factory addresses and official telephone numbers. Moreover, 73 percent of the 5,000 students surveyed said they eat these snacks regularly, with some consuming three to four packages of latiao a day.
Those "0.5 yuan snacks" usually contain high levels of salt which could lead to high blood pressure. Some of the latiao his team tested had levels of salt that reached over double the national standard, said Peng.
Moreover, underground latiao factories usually added excessive quantities of preservatives and various kinds of additives. "Some businessmen were so crafty that they added 22 different types of additives to keep each under the national standard to evade supervision," said Peng.
According to Peng, they found several shops even selling expired snacks and due to the rising demand, most of the shops' snacks are these "0.5 yuan snacks." However, even though they were sold at such a cheap price, shop owners revealed that they still have a 50 percent profit margin.
In June, the Beijing Food and Drug Administration launched a large-scale campaign to crackdown on "0.5 yuan snacks" in wholesale markets and shops near schools. A total of 6,100 kilograms of substandard snacks were removed from the capital's shelves.
Since 2015, the State Food and Drug Administration and other local administrations have reported 195 batches of problematic latiao, covering 131 manufactures from Henan, Hunan, Anhui provinces and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Problems they found include the presence of excessive additives, bacterial colonies and sugar substitutes.
It is very hard to supervise food quality in rural areas as many underground factories can "flow" from one place to another. For example, there was a street in North China's Hebei Province packed with latiao-making factories. After a local government crackdown, they moved to another street in a village in Northeast China's Jilin Province.
Apart from weak supervision, Peng said that a lack of education and awareness of what constitutes a good diet are the real problems. "Many left-behind children are watched by their grandparents who have no knowledge of food safety."
A migrant surnamed Li, who is from rural Hunan and works in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, told the Global Times that he feels guilty about not being with his family for most of the year Therefore, when he goes back home, he gives them money to buy whatever they want.
In their latest research, Peng's team found that although the economic conditions of rural areas have improved, there has not been a corresponding improvement of rural children's health.
"We found that when we gave children one yuan, they would buy cheap snacks. But when we gave them three yuan, they still choose those garbage foods instead of milk or other nutritious foods," said Peng.
The expert called for the government to promote legislation on dietary education and include such education into the compulsory curriculum as soon as possible.