A selection of hangover drinks are sold at a convenience store in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Whether it’s soju and beer with colleagues or wine with friends, drinking is an important part of socializing in South Korea.
South Koreans drank an average of 8.3 liters of alcohol in 2019, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, citing OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Health Statistics 2021.
Though the average amount of alcohol consumed by South Koreans is below the OECD average, 2014 data from market research firm Euromonitor found that they drank an average of 13.7 shots of liquor per week, primarily due to the popularity of the Korean distilled spirit, soju.
Against this backdrop, hangover drinks are a multi-billion won industry. According to data from Nielsen Korea, the industry was estimated to be worth over 200 billion won ($154 million) in 2019.
The industry took a hit in sales over the last two years as social distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic made it hard for people to gather, but sales appear to have increased again in recent months. Data from convenience store chain CU shows that sales of hangover drinks jumped by around 20 percent in office and nightlife districts when COVID-19 restrictions were eased.
The most popular hangover drink in the country is Condition by South Korean pharmaceutical company HK inno.N., which has a market share of over 40 percent.
The company said the drink offers a “clear easing effect on hangovers, with the help of 100 percent Korean-grown oriental raisins and substances patented for their anti-hangover effects.” Oriental raisins, or Hovenia dulcis nuts, are among several natural herbs and ingredients that have been traditionally used to treat hangovers in Korea.
HK inno.N said that Hovenia dulcis fruit extracts are better at breaking down alcohol than other parts of the tree.
Condition Pill, the pill version of the drink, has a fresh elderberry flavor, making the process of recovering from hangovers “all the more pleasant.”
Dawn 808 is another popular hangover drink, invented by Nam Jong-hyun, the late founder of beverage company Glami whose portrait is printed on the package. The name comes from the fact that Nam had 807 failed attempts before coming up with the formula.
Most hangover drinks are made of ingredients that are traditionally associated with breaking down alcohol in the system or are thought to be good for liver health. The companies behind them argue that their drinks work because of these ingredients.
A 2003 study by a team of researchers at Kongju National University found that when the water extracts of Hovenia dulcis were injected into rats, the concentration of blood alcohol decreased two hours later.
But the right to use the “hangover drink” label commercially has not come uncontested.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety once sought to stop Glami from using the label, claiming it is an exaggeration that could mislead consumers to believe that the product has proven properties that treat hangovers.
In a 2000 ruling, however, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled in favor of the company, saying that prohibiting the use of “hangover cure” infringes on commercial free speech.Do they really work?
Though hangover drinks are popular before a big night out and the following morning, it has yet to receive an official backing from the medical community.
Doctor Cho Young-gyu at the Department of Family Medicine at Inje University Seoul Paik Hospital told The Korea Herald that it is hard to say whether they are effective without clinical trials.
“These are commercialized products made of ingredients used as folk remedies in the past. They are being sold in the market without analyzing their effectiveness, making it hard to say whether they work.”
Cho said he has conducted a clinical trial on the effectiveness of Hovenia dulcis extracts as a hangover cure but has not found conclusive evidence that supports the drinks’ reputation.
Drinking coffee as a way to tackle a hangover has more scientific backing, he said.
“Coffee has been receiving attention as a hangover cure as of late, not only helping fight a hangover but also improving liver function and even preventing liver cancer, according to recent studies.
”I drink coffee the next morning myself (after drinking),“ the doctor added.
In a newsletter for the Korean Academy of Medical Sciences, urology doctor Paick Sung-Hyun of Konkuk University Medical Center cited a report by KBS TV which showed that the level of acetaldehyde -- a first breakdown product of the alcohol metabolism process associated with headache and nausea – did not change between drinking water and so-called hangover drinks.
”Having nibbles and drinking the right amount of water while drinking can also be very helpful,“ he said.
According to a recent study by a team of researchers from King‘s College London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in the United Kingdom, ”no convincing scientific evidence“ has been found that hangover cures work.
The study published by the scientific journal Addiction in January looked into 21 placebo-controlled randomized trials of hangover cures such as clove extract, red ginseng, Korean pear juice, and others.
The evidence was of very low quality, the study found, usually due to methodological limitations or imprecise measurements. Some studies, however, showed statistically significant improvements in hangover symptoms.
”Our study has found that evidence on these hangover remedies is of very low quality, and a more rigorous assessment is needed. For now, the surest way of preventing hangover symptoms is to abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation,“ said lead author Dr. Emmert Roberts.