In South Korea, convenience stores are more than mere quick stops for a snack or drink.
As the cost of living continues to rise, these ubiquitous stores have become a favorite lunch destination, offering a wide array of options, from triangular seaweed rolls or gimbap, to noodles, snacks and desserts.
However, the pressing question remains: Can these quick and cheap foods also be healthy?
Salt and sugar
Prepackaged and processed foods, like the items sold at convenience stores, tend to contain high levels of salt and sugar.
A 2020 study conducted by Hyun Tai-sun, a professor in the department of food and nutrition at Chungbuk National University in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, found that packaged meals at convenience stores contain on average of about 66.8 percent of the World Health Organization‘s guideline for daily sodium intake.
Further research released in 2020 by the Korea Consumer Agency revealed that over a third of the WHO‘s 50-gram daily suggested limit for processed sugar was present in nine of 23 instant coffee samples tested.
But convenience stores are not immune to the prevailing trend for healthier choices, as seen in the latest surge in the popularity of zero-calorie drinks and sugar-free products.
According to BGF Retail, which owns the country’s largest convenience store chain, CU, it saw an 89 percent jump in sales of zero-calorie carbonated drinks in the first three months of this year from the same period of 2022.
GS25 reported a twofold increase in zero-calorie beverages during the same period, while E-mart 24 saw a 70 percent increase.
The industry is trying to respond to the needs of health-conscious consumers, GS Retail Communications Manager Park Do-young told The Korea Herald.
He cited as an example GS25’s initiative in 2021 that involved revamping the gochujang -- or red chili paste -- in one of GS25‘s popular prepackaged meal options. The effort reduced sodium content by over 30 percent.
Shift to healthier food
In recognition of its increasing role in the Korean diet, the government has also rolled up its sleeves to promote healthier food at convenience stores.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, through collaborating with small and medium-sized manufacturers, helped introduce a range of triangular gimbap offerings with 20 to 30 percent less sodium.
To ensure standards, the ministry mandates that these products must demonstrate either at least a 10 percent sodium reduction compared to similar market offerings, or a 25 percent reduction compared to their own prior recipes.
The ministry’s latest initiative, launched last year, is a pilot project dubbed “Healthy Choice,” aimed at making healthier options more visible to consumers. This includes labeling low-sugar and low-salt foods in designated sections within convenience stores near school.
According to Cha Sang-jun, a ministry official working on the initiative, the project has strict criteria: Drinks must contain less than 17 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters, while salad dressings must have below 420 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams -- about half that of a typical salad dressing.
While the initiative aims to include both drinks and food items, the current focus is more on drinks due to challenges in standardizing “healthy” sodium standards for diverse food items, he explained.
“Although initially focusing on children, who are significantly affected by obesity and high sugar consumption, the project plans to accommodate all customers in the long term,” Cha added.
The ministry last month announced a plan to expand the program to 157 additional stores across Seoul and its surrounding areas and gradually broaden the range of healthier choices available, ultimately encompassing a wider variety of food items.
While these efforts are in general a positive development, professor Hyun of Chungbuk National University urged caution in assuming that all moves toward reduced sodium or sugar are inherently healthier. She emphasizes the need for a thorough understanding of the potential impacts of artificial sweeteners and sodium substitutes on health.
“While the advent of zero-sugar products might seem like a positive step, it‘s essential to remember that these products are a result of the commercialization of appealing artificial sweeteners. This is not always indicative of a rise in health consciousness,” she said in a phone interview.
Hyun‘s cautionary tone aligns with the WHO’s recent warning about the potential health risks of continuous consumption of artificial sweeteners, such as increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality in adults.
Hyun pointed out that “in contrast, sales of low-sodium products like low-salt prepackaged meals seem rather subdued.”
The issue, she believes, is that salt substitutes, like potassium chloride, “haven‘t been able to match the flavor of salt due to their slightly bitter taste,” leaving food makers with the only choice of simply reducing salt content and making products less appealing.
“As of 2023, the total sales of our low-sodium prepackaged meal offerings haven‘t exactly taken off,” said GS Retail’s Park.
Given the popularity and convenience of these stores, and many Koreans‘ predilection for salty foods, according to Hyun, she suggests, “A slow, steady shift toward less salty foods may be more feasible than waiting for the perfect, healthier substitutes.”