The Rise Of K-food As The Next Plant-Based Diet

Wednesday, April 14th, 2021

Contributed by Sunny Moon, Food and Nutrition Consultant at Euromonitor International

High Consumption Of Vegetables In Korea

The movie Minari has recently been in the global spotlight. The film depicts the story of a Korean family that moves to settle in America in the 1980s. While the father plants Korean vegetables to target Korean restaurants and shops, the grandmother plants minari seeds brought from her home country. Minari is a common vegetable in South Korea, also called water dropwort. It grows well anywhere, and is one of the representative ingredients of Korean cuisine. It is interesting that the story centres on Korean vegetables, and audiences are curious to know what is so special about them.

A typical Korean dining table consists of several vegetable side dishes, known as Namul Banchan, accompanied by main dishes, rice and soup. When Koreans have barbeque, leafy vegetables are essential, such as lettuce to wrap meat. Koreans have always believed that side dishes such as vegetables highlight the taste of the main dishes and offer a healthy combination. High consumption of vegetables at every meal is apparent in a line in the movie, “Koreans should travel a long journey to purchase Korean vegetables from other cities.”

Common Korean meal, with Namul Banchan

[Source: Pixabay]


Natural plants and herbs at the roadside, field or mountain can be made into healthy plant-based foods by Koreans. They are used to using such plants for food by blanching and pickling them. Minari has a strong scent which can help to reduce any fishy smells, so it is widely used in Korean spicy fish stew.


Namul Banchan, shelf-stable packaged vegetables, offer potential as global K-food

The vegetable side dishes included within Korean cuisine are being repositioned with the concept of plant-based K-food to attract global consumers. Namul Banchan is usually home-made and consumed at home. However, brands have developed various packaged versions due to the rapidly increasing market size. For instance, as consumers had more home-cooked meals during COVID-19, the market was strongly positively impacted by single-person households and people who could not cook well. In Korean restaurants, side dishes called Banchan are commonly served free and refilled if customers order a main dish. However, people visited restaurants less frequently during the pandemic, which led sales of packaged Banchan to rise as consumers shifted from foodservice to home consumption. According to one leading convenience store in South Korea, sales of Banchan increased by 40 percent in 2020, and the number of Banchan products extended to more than 120, seeing 25% growth compared with 2017. The increase in the number of working women has also driven growth for packaged Banchan.

Japan also saw a similar growth pattern for side dishes over the last decade, increasing in convenience stores in particular, with single households and working women accounting for most sales. Due to the trend towards packaged side dishes in Asia for convenience reasons, Korean players are taking the opportunity to introduce Korean Banchan as healthy plant-based K-food to global consumers, rather than just playing on the interesting food culture within Asia.

CJ Cheiljedang’s Bibigo Banchan brand expanded its portfolio, and according to the company its monthly sales in January 2020 were 50 percent higher compared with the previous year. Bibigo already has a strong reputation in the Asia Pacific region, so the company is expected to expand its portfolio globally to deliver the culture of Korean side dishes with the concept of convenience and health.

Start-up players manufacturing shelf-stable Namul Banchan are also set to do well. Vegetables are perishable, and whilst they are usually stored chilled, shelf-stable canned Namul vegetables are expected to make it easier for young domestic consumers to purchase such products and also develop the potential to expand the global market. Also, sauce manufacturers, especially for Namul Banchan, are likely to actively develop the global market to help foreigners cook this dish easily at home.


Ordinary Korean meals are repositioned as plant-based foods globally

K-food is valued for its traditional distinct taste, but its perception has evolved, and Korean side dishes are now also appreciated as well-balanced plant-based health foods. With the trend towards sustainable lifestyles, more people are looking towards plant-based foods to be conscious consumers. The typical Korean cuisine is perfect for flexitarians who would like to eat vegetables together with meat. As K-food is expanding to other countries, players are focusing on how to make local consumers feel comfortable with it by providing a background to Korean cuisine, with increasing emphasis being placed on the health benefits and/or its sustainability.

Kimchi [Source: Pixabay]


For instance, Kimchi is a traditional Korean pickle made with cabbage, radish, spring onions and pepper with fish sauce. Although Kimchi is a very ordinary food to Koreans, who often eat this every day, it has not been very well-received by foreigners so far, due to its unfamiliar taste and strong smell. However, players are currently tweaking the concept of Kimchi slightly when introducing it abroad. Kimchi boosts the immune system through the fermentation process. This caters to global consumers who are keen to try health foods, and this was especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, players are attracting global consumers with its unique immune-boosting function. In addition, some players have tried to make vegan Kimchi by replacing the fish sauce with vegetable extracts to maximise its positioning as a plant-based food.


Plant-based K-food actively extends beyond meals to a snack option

The introduction of the very basic Korean food Banchan will lead to more interest in healthy K-food globally. Extension from meals to plant-based appetisers and snacks is also likely to be under the spotlight. Based on the popularity of fried/baked seaweed in Asian countries, dry-fried vegetables such as sesame leaf, sweet potato, lotus root, pepper and carrot, called ‘Bugak’ have been newly introduced as traditional Korean healthy snacks. According to Euromonitor International, vegetable, pulse and bread chips in Asia Pacific recorded 7% value growth during 2020, which shows Asian consumers are becoming more interested in healthy snacking. Vegetable chips could be a good alternative to indulgence foods.

The issue is not only health, with more global consumers interested in consuming plant-based foods for sustainability reasons and trying to gradually reduce their intake of animal protein. As a result, creative ideas are needed to attract consumers to plant-based foods. In this vein, original K-food is being marketed to global consumers as healthy and sustainable plant-based food, beyond its appeal due to its taste and as a side dish.


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