The final tally of Korean food exports last year amounted to US$ 9.2 billion, up by 6.5% from 2016. It was the largest export amount ever achieved by Korea and all the more remarkable given the unfavorable conditions such as the Chinese reaction to the deployment of THAAD and an outbreak of avian flu at home. With the first US$ 1 million in exports just around the corner, 2018 looks even more promising. To surpass the record of last year,
however, Korea needs to reduce its reliance on exports of ramyeon (instant noodles), beverages, and tuna and increase the ratio of other types of products. Particularly urgent is the promotion of export of fresh farm products, which is directly related to the increasing of farmers’ incomes. In this light, Korea Agrafood, with assistance of the overseas offices of aT, has selected food products that have the biggest potential in overseas markets in 2018.
● Japan Is Likely to Import More Health Food and Ready-to-Eat Food from Korea
This year’s keywords for export of Korean food to Japan, the largest importer of Korean food, are “health” and “convenience.” Products with healthy image and ready-to-eat foods are expected to attract consumer attention. Head of the Korea Agro-Trade Center in Tokyo, Kim Ha-dong, said, “In Japan, with its aging population and an increase in the number of working couples, health and convenience are settling as trends in consumption across generations.”
At the top of the list of promising health foods is ginseng. Last year, Korea Agro-Trade Center in Tokyo partnered with Alpressa Healthcare, the largest health food vendor in Japan, to promote the sales and bring nationwide publicity to Korean ginseng through 377 stores in nine drugstore chains the vendor operates. The promotion revealed the Japanese interest in ginseng beverages, red ginseng tea, and other ginseng products.
Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup), jujube beverages, and fruit vinegar beverages also have good potential. Last year, a chicken salad introduced in 7-Eleven stores gained wide popularity, and this year, sales of samgyetang made with chicken breast are likely to grow. Jujube drinks and fruit vinegar beverages are also expected to attract consumers as both jujubes and vinegar are well-known health foods.
Tteokbokki (stir-fried spicy rice cake) and juk (Korean porridge) stand out in the ready-to-eat food category. Frequently described as the most sought-after food of Japanese tourists in Korea, tteokbokki is now available in the Japanese market in different types including those very easy to cook and customized to the Japanese palate. Convenience porridge products fit well in the Japanese trends of the increasing number of female professionals and senior citizens. Abalone porridge makes an excellent meal for patients and the elderly.
● Meeting the Demand of the Expanding Chinese Market with Shine Muscat Grape, Seaweed, and Other Farm Products
In the Chinese market, exports of fresh farm products can be expected to leap forward. For example, since it was first exported to China last year, Shine Muscat grape has been steadily attracting fruit buyers, and its sales are likely to expand this year. “Shine Muscat grape is the first fruit we exported to China. Its strengths include rich pulp, crispiness, and a relatively thin skin, so it can be eaten with its skin on,” said Seo Byung-gyo, Head of the Korea Agro-Trade Center in Beijing.
Another promising product is dried seaweed. The popularity of Korean seaweed in China is growing as attested by the fact that last year’s export volume reached US$ 88.9 million dollars, 30% up from 2016. Head of the Korea Agro-Trade Center in Shanghai, Lee Sang-kil, said, “Dried seaweed is unrivaled in its sales power overseas. It is the most popular Korean product in the snack sections of supermarkets.” He added, “We now export, along with seasoned seaweed, seaweed used for processed food and sushi, so there is a good chance seaweed sales will be even greater this year.”
Export growth is also expected for processed rice products and ramyeon. The baby food market is estimated to increase greatly due to the change in the Chinese government’s population policy which now allows families to have two children. In this context, Korean producers can expand their sales if they offer rice-based baby food and rice snacks for children, customized to the Chinese market. The export of Korean ramyeon is rising on the wings of its fame as extremely spicy and highly addictive, which is spread through social media. Its last year’s sales volume surpassed the US$ 100 million mark. Seo explained, “Ramen exports are continuously growing due to the popularity among Chinese youth of trying different ramyeon flavors and different recipes.”
● New Types of Products to Advance to Southeast Asia
With sales of Korean food products amounting to US$ 1.6 billion last year, Southeast Asia is a market of opportunity for various Korean products. The combination of high sugar content with premium quality will likely attract even more Vietnamese consumers to Korean Shine Muscat grapes. Also, given the high birth rate in Vietnam and concern about safety of baby food among Vietnamese parents, experts predict a rise in popularity of Korean products which have a premium, high-quality food image.
Recording skyrocketing sales of ramyeon and Korean strawberries, Thailand has emerged as the second largest importer of Korean food among the ASEAN countries. It is expected that the demand for the two types of products will continue this year. The healthy lifestyle promotion policies of the Thai government, such as the introduction of a sugar tax, is a good opportunity for Korean nut products, semi-dried sweet potatoes, and other healthy snacks. The Director of the aT office in Bangkok, Yang Jae-seong, said, “Based on the successful test sales of healthy Korean snacks in Thailand last year, we believe that with promotional activities, such snacks will sell well."
Red pepper paste is a promising item in Indonesia. As import quotas no longer apply to red pepper, the barriers to its import have been removed, and now the product can be exported to the country all year round. Considering that the popularity of Korean food in Jakarta is very high (about 200 Korean restaurants operate in the capital), the sales of red pepper paste are likely to grow. Singapore is expected to import more sweet pumpkins and green pumpkins from Korea. Sweet pumpkin is a common ingredient in the Singaporean cuisine, and sweet pumpkin from Korea tops the list of most popular fresh Korean products in local supermarkets. With its excellent taste, green pumpkin may win the hearts of Singaporean consumers if its sales are promoted through free sampling events of pumpkin fries and other pumpkin dishes.
● American Consumers Look Forward to Healthy Food from Korea
The interest in healthy food in the US is continuing, and it is expected that more consumers will turn their attention to healthy Korean products such as samgyetang and red pepper paste. The awareness about samgyetang, which has built an image of high-end food, is expanding, leading to an increasing consumption of samgyetang products by the ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese. As a result, the sales volume of samgyetang products, which were first introduced in the American market in 2014, recorded US$ 3.6 million last year. Given the diversification of related products, such as the entry of samgye-juk (samgyetang porridge), the market share is likely to expand further.
Health-conscious American consumers are also showing interest in gluten-free red pepper paste, which shows good prospects for that type of product. Kim Kwang-jin, the head of the aT office in New York, suggested, "If we utilize the interest of Americans in gluten-free red pepper paste in our marketing, we will be able to build up the paste’s reputation as a healthy, high-quality food ingredient and expand the market accordingly."
In addition, Buldak-Bokkeum-Myeon (instant noodles with hot fried chicken) has attracted great attention as a “food challenge” through Youtube. Not only that product but similar products of other companies are also flying off the shelves, securing a new consumer base. Yi Chu-pyo, the head of aT branch in LA, forecasts, “Since the speed of entry into the American market of products that are hits in Korea is increasing, the consumption of Korean ramyeon among Asian consumers in the US is going to grow further.”
● Expecting a Competition by Korean Products for a Share in the European Health Food Market
Due to the interest of Europeans in ethnic and health foods, exports of Korean king oyster mushrooms last year rose by 12%. Local consumers praise Korean king oyster mushrooms for excellent texture and flavor.
The demand for kimchi is growing thanks to its healthy image as a fermented food. The kimchi exports in 2017 reached US$ 6.24 million, which is a 26% increase compared to the previous year. Similarly, Korean sauces benefit from being fermented foods and contribute to the raising of interest in Korean food products and sales in general. European consumers demonstrate positive responses not only to traditional sauces such as gochujang (red pepper paste), doenjang (soybean paste), and ganjang (soy sauce) but also their modern counterparts—ssamjang (a combination of bean paste, red pepper paste, and other seasonings), chogochujang (red pepper paste with vinegar), and others.
● The Middle East Falls in Love with Spicy Korean Food
The food challenge trend on social media has been spotlighting Buldak-Bokkeum-Myeon in the Middle East since 2016, resulting in a 23% increase in sales of the product last year. The product has sparked a trend for spicy Korean food, with other products, such as instant tteokbokki likely to pick up the baton. Song Bong-seok, the head of the aT office in Abu Dhabi, said, “Young people in the Middle East are becoming interested in Korean culture and look for Korean street food and convenience food.”
Given the large ratio of young people in the region (about 50%), it is expected that exports of Korean powdered milk and baby food products to local markets will also expand in the future.
Lee Hyun Woo firstname.lastname@example.org