Special edition: Asia

Korea: 'Stringent' regulations promote functional food potential

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Functional food Nutrition

The Korean functional food market hinges on obtaining the nation’s precious ingredient claim approval, but breaking that barrier opens the floodgates to huge market potential, according to an industry expert.

In the second part of our special series on the food and beverage markets in Asia, we speak to Willy Tan, Asia executive director of Pharmachem, for a glimpse into the state of affairs in Korea.

“The Asian market in general is moving into functional foods, which is a trend that has picked up strongly over the past few years. Everybody looks to Japan for market trends in the region, and this is true of Korea too. But the key difference in the functional food market in Korea is that individual ingredients need to be approved to carry health claims, as opposed to Japan’s finished product approval process,” ​said Tan.

“This regulatory process makes Korea very different from other markets. There are fewer products on the shelves, but the products that are on them sell very well.”

Tough regulations

According to Tan, who represents the US functional ingredient firm Pharmachem across Asia, the stringent regulatory approval process in Korea is both restrictive – in that it prevents all but the most substantiated ingredients from carrying health claims – and flexible – in that once an ingredient is approved it can be used in all product categories, which means there is a wider scope for the ingredient to reach consumers.

In Korea, he said, no functional food products are sold without claims, as no one would know what the benefits are.

For functional ingredients to carry a claim in Korea, this must be submitted to the Korean Food and Drug Administration (KFDA), which will evaluate it for efficacy, consistency and safety.

“The government is very protective of the Korean people, and wants to make sure that they are not taken in by ambiguous products that can’t be substantiated,” ​said Tan. “KFDA has very stringent criteria, and from what I understand, almost 70 percent of dossiers are rejected.”

According to the KFDA, it takes five months – or more precisely 150 working days – for an ingredient claim dossier to be evaluated. However, tan estimates that in practice, most ingredient approvals take between one and three years because of the supplementary data usually requested by KFDA that needs to be submitted.

“So it is very difficult to get the function claim, but once you do, the business potential is huge,”​ he said.

Functional food market

Tan estimates that functional foods in Korea make up between 10-20 per cent of the overall food market.

“Moving forward, I think the functional food side will begin to see a growth of 20-30 per cent because of an increased awareness and understanding of the functional trend. Companies are beginning to realise this, and they are putting more functional ingredients into more of their products.”

According to Tan, consumer awareness of functional ingredients is generally prompted by the market leaders in Korea.

“Ingredients start to be recognised because once approval is achieved, one of the big companies – like Korea’s CJ – usually launches products on the market and will promote its benefits. For example, CJ has its TV shopping channel, where they promote their products’ benefits and consumers can then call to purchase them.”

Leading ingredients and health concerns

Ingredients that have already gained widespread consumer awareness in Korea (even though some of them have only recently gained approval, or may still be limited to dietary supplements) include:

  • Ginseng – for vitality and the immune system
  • Glucosamine – for joint health
  • Saw palmetto – for prostate health
  • Cranberry – for urinary tracts infections
  • CLA – for weight loss
  • Omega-3 – for heart health

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