Food craze: Ready-meal market on the rise grows as more Koreans dine alone
Food craze: Ready-meal market on the rise grows as more Koreans dine alone
  • Ahn Chee-young and others
  • 승인 2019.04.15 17:14
  • 수정 2020.05.30 01:23
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Food Issue Communication, a club that discusses about food issues, gather for their regular meeting. Photo provided by Rim Ji-young.
Professor Kwon O-ran from Department of Nutritional Science & Food Management discusses future prospects of Korean HMR industry. Photo provided by Kwon O-ran.

By Ahn Chee-young, Choi Ye-jin, Jang Ha-rim, Jeong You-hyun

Many young people who move from their hometowns to work or study face many challenges as they start solo life in a new city. For one thing, it is not always easy to prepare healthy meals. A growing number of Koreans are relying on ready-meals in their hectic daily lives. With an increasing number of single-person households, instant meals have evolved to cater to those eating alone. According to Kantar Worldpanel, a market research company, Korea’s ready-meal market has increased by 43.3 percent since 2016. Ewha Voice has delved into the ready meal industry and young people’s growing reliance on these products.

FIC – students engage on food trends

Food Issue Communication (FIC) is a university club where students from food-related majors at several universities meet to discuss food issues. The club participates in contests, exhibitions, fairs, and holds academic meetings. Members also go on field trips to food factories as well as hosting cooking classes, and gastro-ventures.

FIC president, Rim Ji-young explained that the club was established last year to give students a chance to exchange ideas related to food. The club discussed the increasing popularity of HMR, and some of the problems associated with them. Rim pointed out that the range of HMR has grown to include different cuisines as the industry has grown.  

She also shared her thoughts on the increasing popularity of HMRs among university students.

“Based on our research, HMR products are popular because the meals are constantly improving in terms of variety and quality,” Rim said. “Students feel that it is burdensome to eat out because of time and cost, so they usually consume ready meals. If the industry becomes bigger, it would be ideal for students because there will be more products available.”

However, she also pointed out that there could be some issues with the nutrition, safety, and taste of these foods.

“Despite the fact that HMR provides convenience, they lack nutritional value because the food goes through processing to extend the expiration date,” she said. “The safety issue deals with packing materials that may contain hazardous materials which can pollute the environment.

Consumers do not always appreciate the food since its taste and the appearance is inferior to freshly prepared meals.”

Rim mentioned that members’ main concerns were related to food security and sanitation.

“Although many consumers are reluctant to purchase food products that have food additives or GMO products, we study the compositions and technologies to bring about ways to educate consumers on such products,” she said. “We are planning to create contents on food additives.”

The rise of the quick-cook dinner for one

As the number of one-person households in Korea rises, consumers have begun to search for meals that can be eaten straight from the package or cooked in a short time. Based on data from Statistic Korea, there were 5.6 million one-person households in the country in 2017, marking a 40 percent increase from 2.26 million in 2000.

In Korea, instant meals, also known as home meal replacements (HMR), have become daily staples for many young people. Quick-cook meals such as the ‘3-mins Quick & Easy Curry’ made by food manufacturer Ottogi alongside instant food brands such as CJ CheilJedang’s Hetbahn ready-to-heat rice, are growing in popularity.

There are four types of HMR products: ready-to-prepare, ready-to-cook, ready-to-heat, and ready-to-eat. 

CJ CheilJedang Trend Strategy Team - Nam Sung-ho

CJ CheilJedang is a large manufacturer of food ingredients, food, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. CJ Foods is best-known for HMR products under the Beksul, Bibigo and Hetbahn - brands that include frozen dumplings, soup, meat, and pizza.

According to Nam Sung-ho from CJ CheilJedang’s trend strategy team, the HMR market in Korea started to grow around 2014 and 2015 where many people were still unfamiliar with ready meals.

“The leading consumers were young people in the beginning,” Nam said. “After introducing our Hetbahn rice bowl and Bibigo soup products in 2016, the consumer range became broad as families and seniors gained interest. With the change in consumers, we now consider the current economy status, trends and lifestyle and the needs of all when marketing and creating our products.”

Nam also commented on the change in dietary trends in Korea where, based on CJ’s analysis, young people no longer find authentic Korean foods with a lot of side dishes. They rather look for foods that are easy-to-eat and has equal nutritional content.

CJ CheilJedang started to create ready-meal products after they realized that solo dining became a trend. Nam commented that in CJ, before the release of a new HMR product, they undergo a thorough consumer analysis.

“We start from choosing a concept first through a step-by-step process. We analyze and understand the current trends and consumers. For instance, we got the idea of the Bibigo porridge through big data analysis which showed the types of menu people tend to find regularly.” 

When asked about the eating habits of people today, Nam answered that the environmental changes, minimum wage, increasing economy and the newly implemented 52 hour work week, has made a large impact. 

“The number of people turning to HMR foods will continuously increase due to the food service industry increase their prices due to the unstable economy. This will make it harder for people to dine out.”

CJ CheilJedang prospects to diversify their HMR products and also build on an online store and widen their delivery times. In conclusion, today, ready meals have diversified to include vegan and diet products such as - CJ’s “Morning Tofu.”

Future prospects of Korean HMR industry

From a commercial perspective, Kwon O-ran, a professor of the department of Nutritional Science & Food Management at Ewha, pointed out that restaurants are facing declining sales, given the growing popularity of HMRs.

Professor Kwon, who investigates functional foods and previously studied food policy issues for 18 years at the National Institute of Health and Ministry of Drug and Food Safety said that increasing HMR offerings from food companies paired with Koreans’ preference for eating at home would damage sales at restaurants.

“For restaurants to be successful, franchises need to find cooking experts and receive feedback to improve their quality and the taste of their meals,” she said.

Professor Kwon explained the types of HMRs preferred by college students.

“I believe that ready-to-eat is popular among college students since it involves food products that are instantly edible, such as salads,” she remarked. “Young people nowadays favor convenient products such as meal-kits, where ingredients for the meal are cooked.”

Kwon also emphasized that the nutritional value of HMRs have been questioned.

“It is insufficient to eat only meal-kits,” she added. “Milk and fruits should be eaten to maintain a healthy diet. Problems of the nutritional value of HMRs can be solved since the industry is striving to provide more balanced meals.”

She elaborated on the differences between HMR and slow-food and how she views about both types of food industry.

“Slow-food is an opposing concept from fast-food and the former emphasizes traditional materials such as fermented food and food culture,” she defined. “However, slow-food is not in an antagonistic relationship between HMR. Instead HMR brands have implemented the elements of slow-food.”

Kwon suggested that to achieve the ideal meal, the foods have to be well-processed, delicious, nutritious and healthy. 

She observed that South Korea is regarded as a global test-market in the food industry given that Koreans tend to be quick to take up new trends. Due to the fact that customers are looking for well-being and convenience, HMR industry is expanding.

“This can be evidenced by the shift of family structures in society,” she said. “Given that people are busy and cooking meals is challenging for some families, HMRs offer an efficient alternative to home cooking.”

Kwon mentioned some negative aspects of HMR products that need improvement. One of them is that growing supply of HMR products might contribute to the loss of traditional food culture in Korea.

“Packaging can be another issue,” she said, pointing out that the multiple wrappings used to preserve food become waste.

Kwon alluded corporations’ effort to guarantee nutrition for consumers as the keyword for the food industry. Customization and functionalization of products according individuals’ different health status will be popular.

“The first function of food is nutrition, the second is taste, and the last focuses on health,” she mentioned. “The HMR food industry is progressing towards the third function and will attempt to concentrate on producing fresh meals.


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