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‘Health functional foods’ see boom in wake of virus outbreak

Balanced diet, lifestyle key to maintaining good health and strong immunity, say doctors

An employee displays ginseng extract products inside a mart in Seoul. (Yonhap)
An employee displays ginseng extract products inside a mart in Seoul. (Yonhap)

For Hwangbo Kyung-sun, a 29 year-old office worker in Seoul, it has become a routine to take omega-3 supplements or krill oil pills along with bringing a face mask and hand sanitizer to protect herself against the fast-spreading COVID-19.

“It is basically the most I can do to not get infected from the coronavirus,” Hwangbo told The Korea Herald.

Like Hwangbo, more people in South Korea are buying health functional foods, also known as nutraceuticals, which are not pharmaceuticals but are considered to have physiological benefits.

Retailers and manufacturers have seen sales of such products surge over the past few months, and industry observers expect the 4.6 trillion won ($3.87 billion) functional food market to continue to grow.

According to Homeplus, a hypermarket chain, the sales of health functional food products spiked in February. Red ginseng products witnessed a 260 percent jump in sales on-year, while vitamin products and probiotics have seen sales increase by 67 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Lotte Homeshopping, a TV home-shopping channel here, also said its sales of dietary supplements such as red ginseng and propolis soared by 137 percent on-year during the period of Feb. 1-17.

Similar booms in health functional foods were seen during the H1N1 or swine flu epidemic in 2009 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2015, according to market research firm Kantar Korea.

For this year, Kantar Korea forecast sharp growth of 5 to 9 percent for health functional products.

How effective are they?

In Korea, health functional foods are strictly controlled by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, and all such products must be approved by the ministry.

Under the law, functional foods are defined as foods manufactured and processed with “functional” raw materials or ingredients, with proven benefits to human health.

The ministry has a list of ingredients approved for functionality, such as Lingzhi mushroom extract and evening primrose extract, which have undergone evaluation by various methods, including human and animal testing.

For a manufacturer to receive the “Health Functional Food” mark for market distribution, it needs to meet several criteria set forth by the ministry, including how to process them and the appropriate dose for a product, according to the Korea Health Supplements Association.

While the safety of the food products is verified by the government, opinions still differ on whether these functional foods really have an influence.

These nutraceuticals may have a minor impact on health, but what is more important for maintaining good health and strong immunity is a balanced lifestyle, says Kim Kyung-soo, a family medicine professor at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital.

“Having an even and nutritious diet is crucial, but that does not mean consuming a box of some healthy mushroom or its extract will have an influence to your body,” Kim said.

“Taking enough rest, sleeping enough hours, exercising and keeping away from bad habits like excessive drinking and smoking is much more important to raise immunity levels.”

Kang Dae-jin, the head of the Health Functional Foods Policy department at the Food Ministry, told The Korea Herald that while these functional foods may not produce a dramatic change, they are proven to have nutrients that are beneficial to one’s health.

“When you find the right product that agree with you, and have them steadily, it can have some positive impacts,” Kang said.

Kang, at the same time, warned of the increasing number of exaggerated advertisements about health functional foods, some of which suggest they can protect users from COVID-19.

Over the past month, the ministry has received daily of about 20 reports of food and vitamin products that are advertised as being capable of preventing infection with the new coronavirus, according to Kang.

“Beware, there is not a single health functional food product we have approved as effective in fighting the new coronavirus,” Kang said.

Caution is also advised as an increasing number of fake advertisements are posted on social media, endorsing uncertified nutraceuticals as immunity boosters.

By Jo He-rim (