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3 Little Known F&B Trends Transforming The South Korean Market In 2023
Zero-sugar high-protein kombucha anybody?
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South Korea is a sophisticated and exciting market for food and beverage. Yet, language barriers and a lack of local touchpoints make it hard to stay abreast of what’s going on there. Market Shake has got you covered!
Today we’re bringing you an update on the big trends from South Korea’s largest food and beverage trade show, Seoul Food and Hotel 2023 which took place this month. You’ll discover all the hot products and opportunities in the South Korean market this year. Let’s dive in!
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USDA approved “cell-cultivated” chicken labels of Eat Just and Upside Foods earlier this month, bringing both companies a step closer to being able to sell their products in the US.
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Earlier this month, the GourmetPro team attended South Korea’s largest food expo, Seoul Food and Hotel 2023 (SFH). The expo is an inspiring window into the trends that are transforming South Korea’s food and beverage market. We spoke to GourmetPro’s COO, Polina Oba, to find out more about the opportunities she observed while touring the show floor and the city of Seoul.
What Is The Seoul Food and Hotel Expo?
The Seoul Food Expo, or Seoul Food and Hotel Expo (SFH), is South Korea’s largest annual food exposition, and the 4th biggest in Asia. The event brings together nearly 1,000 exhibitors, two-thirds domestic, and one-third international, to showcase their food and beverage offerings to 35,000+ visitors. In short, it is THE place to go to see what’s trending in South Korea’s F&B market and to meet innovative companies that are leading the trends.
Why You Should Care About The South Korean Market
South Korea is an often-overlooked market in Asia, with companies tending to focus on nearby countries like Japan and China. But this is a mistake. South Korea has a strong economy, the 12th largest in the world, and the majority of consumer expenditure goes on food and beverage. The country also imports over 54% of its food, making it an attractive and receptive market to innovative products from overseas.
While the population is small, over 20% of South Koreans live in metropolitan Seoul, which coincidentally has the second-highest average salary out of all major Asian cities. This makes it easier for entrants to the market to concentrate their focus on the capital which alone can generate significant sales. SFH then is the ideal event to understand local trends and spot opportunities and gaps in the market.
On that note, here’s what we observed at the expo in 2023.
Trend #1 - Functional Drinks Everywhere
Functional drinks are emerging as a trend in South Korea with a lot of exciting activity in the market. The energy drink market for example has grown 30% since 2019 and continues to see strong demand. Other areas to watch include hangover relief drinks, nutri-shots, and kombucha.
These products and more stood out at SFH with functional drinks stealing the show according to correspondent Polina Oba. Kombucha in particular was prominant:
“There were an overwhelming number of kombuchas on show in the exhibition hall. One that stood out to me was Gutflex, a sweet fruit Kombucha which was being promoted for its good-for-your-gut benefits. Outside of SFH too, when I visited convenience stores and supermarkets, yet more kombucha. It’s impressive how the beverage is captivating the market, when we’re seeing barely any activity in Japan for example”.
Polina Oba, COO @ GourmetPro
In addition to Kombucha, other notable functional drinks at SFH included:
Nutrition drinks such as meal replacements and vitamin shots
Pre and probiotic-infused drinks
What’s driving the trend?
The pandemic triggered consumer awareness about self-care in South Korea. This has led to demand amongst consumers for food and drink that provides mental and physical health benefits.
The functional drinks market has also been given a boost since the government launched the General Food Functional Labeling System in 2020. The regulation allows food products to add functional claims as long as there is a scientific basis or if they use any of 29 ingredients that have been approved by the government for their functional benefits.
In the case of kombucha, the popularity of the beverage exploded when a member of K-Pop boy band BTS promoted the drink in 2021.
Trend #2 - High Protein Snacks
Korean consumers are hungry for protein. Consumption of protein products has exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the market reaching a value of nearly 300 million USD in 2022, increasing more than 5X since 2018.
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The food and beverage industry has jumped on the trend, launching a wide variety of convenient high-protein foods. Examples include coffee chain Tom N Tom’s high-protein donuts, high-protein coffee from Herbalife Korea, and Daesang’s high-protein brownies.
The trend was everywhere at SFH 2023 says Polina.
“There were a lot of protein-enriched snack products, like cookies, protein bars, and low-calorie biscuits and bites. The trend seems to be towards convenient, flavorful products that can be easily enjoyed while being active, or throughout the workday.”
Polina Oba, COO @ GourmetPro
What’s driving the trend?
Protein products used to be consumed to repair muscle after a workout in South Korea. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, consumers have become more conscious about their own self-care. They now seek to consume protein as part of an active lifestyle and as a healthy snack.
Trend #3 - Novel Sweeteners
The zero-sugar (more on this below) wave is sweeping through South Korea right now and one sweetener is generating more excitement than others.
Allulose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruits like figs and raisins. The sweetener is commercially produced from corn in South Korea and exported to the US where the product has GRAS status and there is strong demand for low-sugar products.
What’s so exciting about Allulose then?
It’s a promising alternative to sugar for use in baked goods. For this use case, two things set it apart from common sweeteners like sucrose and fructose. Firstly it can produce the same foaming property as egg white. Secondly, it can be crystalized like sugar, so it provides the same bulking properties. And if this isn’t enough, it also contains 95% less calories than regular sugar.
“There were several sweeteners on display in the ingredient section of SFH. Allulose was very interesting as a business opportunity in terms of the US export market and in the context of the broad confectionery industry trend towards “healthier” sweeteners. Interestingly, allulose has not yet been widely regulated and is still only sold in a few markets like the US.”
Polina Oba, COO @ GourmetPro
What’s driving the trend?
With healthy indulgence being a major trend in the confectionary industry this year, functional sugar alternatives like allulose are in high demand. The US is the world’s leading market for low-sugar products, making it an obvious target for export for South Korean manufacturers.
Demand for low-sugar products is steadily increasing in South Korea. Consumers are concerned about the negative health effects of sugar, especially weight gain since COVID-19 triggered an interest in personal health management. Likewise, companies see an opportunity in low/no-sugar as a way to innovate in their initial product offerings.
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The trend is seen to have been boosted when, last year, leading alcohol companies in South Korea agreed to show calorie information on labels under pressure from the government. Concerned about managing calorie intake, consumers are swapping their regular alcoholic beverages for “non” versions, like alcohol-free beer. The shift is also triggering the wider beverage market to launch low/zero sugar drinks.
Despite South Korea’s active alternative protein market, there were few products on display at SFH according to Polina. This trend matches what we’ve seen at expos so far in Japan this year, including FOODEX, one of the largest food trade shows in Asia.
Keen To Explore Opportunities In Korea?
The South Korean F&B space is booming. But language barriers and a lack of information about how to navigate the market make it difficult to know where to start. It’s easier to do nothing, to never start exploring opportunities in this exciting market, which is what many players with promising products end up doing. But there is an easy way to engage with the South Korean food and beverage market.
GourmetPro’s South Korea team has decades of experience in the local F&B industry. They can help evaluate the potential of your product in the market, connect you with the right partner who can help you gain a strong foothold in the market, and more. Explore how GourmetPro can help you unlock growth in South Korea.
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