The Sugar-Free Craze
The Sugar-Free Craze
  • Lee Park Jeongeun
  • 승인 2024.04.01 10:00
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Noonsong had been trying to avoid drinking sweet beverages as her sugar intake has recently been increasing. One day, she heard that her favorite drink, Fanta Orange, was being released in a sugar-free version. She was happy that she could now drink delicious drinks without worrying about excessive sugar intake.


The guilty pleasure: sugar

Sugar, which provides energy to move human bodies and tastes sweet, is consumed in large quantities by people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the appropriate amount of sugar that can be consumed per day is approximately 25~50g for adults. However, people commonly consume various foods that inevitably contain sugar such as sauces and beverages in daily lives. Also, the recent popularity of snacks such as Tanghulu, which is made by coating fruit with melted sugar, shows that the number of people consuming excessive amounts of sugar is increasing. Excessive intake of sugar causes weight gain, obesity, and several diseases, such as diabetes, in which sugar is excreted in urine due to the accumulation of glucose in the blood. As the need to reduce sugar intake in relation to health increases, "sugar-free" foods containing sweeteners to replace sugar have emerged. Using this, efforts are being made to prevent diseases caused by sugar intake. Lee Eo-sun, an office worker, said, "I thought that if I reduced sugar and carbohydrates, I would have nothing to eat, but recently such products have increased, so I can follow it without much inconvenience."1) It means that as people's interest in preventing diseases caused by excessive sugar consumption rises, attention toward products that make it possible inevitably rises as well. Therefore, along with the social phenomenon of a surge in sugar-related diseases, awareness of the existence of sugar-free foods has become stronger. 
The popularity of sugar-free foods to minimize sugar intake is increasing. Foods and drinks labeled "sugar-free" are popular as their name indicates low sugar content. According to a purchase trend analysis of Macromill Embrain, on October 26, 2023, total purchases of sugar-free food from January to September of that year reached 489.4 billion won, showing a growth of 72.3 percent greater than the same period of the previous year. It indicates that the economic influence of sugar-free foods has increased and that they are not a minor product. In addition, as sugar-free versions of foods that were previously in high demand continue to be released, consuming them has become a trend. An office worker in her 20s said, "My friends and those around me are looking for sugar-free soju, so when I drink alcohol, I naturally check to see if it is sugar-free."2) This shows that due to the trend for sugar-free foods, there is potential for increased popularity and number of users, including people who previously had no interest in them. Therefore, it seems that sugar-free foods have become a common and acceptable food in everyday life.


​​​​​​​<strong>PHOTO FROM NEWSPOST<br>A graph from analysis of Macromill Embrain</strong>
A graph from analysis of Macromill Embrain


The food that kills two birds with one stone 

People's awareness of their health has led to the rising demand for sugar-free foods. The latest health care trend is "healthy pleasure," which means taking care of one's health in a fun way. This is in contrast to when one feels both guilt and pleasure from eating delicious but unhealthy food or maintains one's health by trying to control desire. Just as tteokbokki made from rice paper and konjac are consumed instead of high-calorie rice cakes, allowing people to eat snacks without fear of weight gain, sugar-free foods are also gaining in popularity in this context. Among sugar-free foods and beverages, carbonated drinks are popular as people often drink them with fast food such as pizza, chicken, and hamburgers. Park Yeon-soo, an office worker, said, "I really like cola, and since regular and sugar-free cola taste the same, I try to drink the one that doesn't burden me with calories if possible. Even in restaurants, if sugar-free cola is available, I order that."3) This shows that sugar-free drinks satisfy the needs of consumers who want drinks that are not harmful to their health and suit their tastes. These characteristics of sugar-free foods extend to consumers' perception that they are less harmful to health. With this recognition, sugar-free foods have been working as one way to maintain health.
The range of sugar-free foods is expanding and the choices available to consumers are also widening. In the past, the advent of sugar-free drinks just slightly expanded people's choice of drinks, but now a variety of products beyond drinks, such as sugar-free black bean sauce noodles and sugar-free Tanghulu, are appearing. The types of snacks are also becoming more diverse. Lotte Wellfood's sugar-free dessert brand Zero has established a lineup of 10 types of snacks, including cookies, cakes, jellies, chocolates, and Monaka. A Lotte Wellfood official said, "We plan to continue to increase the sugar-free dessert category that consumers want through continuous trend monitoring. We will also grow the sugar-free dessert market through more fun and diverse marketing."4) This case shows that the variety of sugar-free foods in the distribution industry continues to increase, which means that the range of choices for consumers will also expand. Along with this trend, in November 2023, Chicken Plus which is a chicken franchise even launched 'Zero Sugar Seasoned Chicken' using an alternative sugar called allulose. It attracted attention of people, including those who are on a diet or who cares about calories, by offering a different kind of chicken from the regular high-calorie kind. As such, related products are continually developing, and as a result, sugar-free foods are expanding beyond the current range. 
Sugar-free foods are not only in demand from consumers, but companies are also interested in them. From the food industry's perspective, selling sugar-free foods is a lucrative marketing strategy. As of February 16, according to the Korea Consumer Agency's Price Information Service, based on all stores nationwide, the average price of 1kg of Beksul White Sugar is 2,529 won, which means that it is approximately 252.9 won per 100g. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA), sucralose which is one of the non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) and 600 times sweeter than sugar costs 49,000 won per 1kg, or about 4,900 won per 100g, which is expensive compared to the price of sugar. However, this sweetener has commercial value as it has a higher level of sweetness than sugar. Kim Tae-ho, a professor at the Korean Research Institute of Science, Technology and Civilization at Jeonbuk National University, said, "If the sweetness of sugar is set to 100, glucose has a sweetness of about 75 and fructose has a sweetness of about 150. However, artificial sweeteners are overwhelmingly sweet. It is so high that this index rises into the tens of thousands."5) This shows that sweeteners in sugar-free foods act as a substitute for the sweet taste of sugar, and furthermore, as the sweetness itself is much higher than sugar, it is effective even when used in small amounts. Considering that sucralose has a sweeter taste than sugar, it is possible to reduce costs by using less. Therefore, food manufacturers now have more options to maximize profits, with the dual benefits: reducing unit costs and securing customers. In the end, sugar-free food has the possibility to be a valuable product to companies as well as consumers. 




The tug-of-war over healthy food

Sugar-free foods, which are growing in scale, have attracted people's attention in terms of safety. There are concerns that immoderate consumption of sugar-free foods, resulting from the perception that they reduce sugar intake at a high rate, is actually harmful to the body. Jason Montez, NSS researcher at the WHO, said, "In the short term, trials of consuming NSS instead of sugar may result in weight loss. However, the strong sweetness of non-sugar sweeteners results in the brain detecting significant amounts of sugar. People get a signal that they've eaten sugar, but in reality, they haven't, so the desire to eat sugar increases."6) That is, not only does sugar-free food stimulate the appetite more in the long run, making it difficult to achieve significant weight loss, but there is also a risk that the illusion of being healthy may lead to higher consumption. Beyond such concerns about the indiscriminate consumption of sugar-free foods, the question of whether the sweetener itself is safe has also been raised. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been classified as a human carcinogen since July 2023 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under the WHO. Carcinogens are classified into several groups, and among them, group 2B, which contains aspartame, turned out to have insufficient animal testing data and limited research evidence on humans. However, in response to this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) argued that aspartame is one of the most researched food additives. In addition, the FDA suggested that even 50mg of aspartame, which is more than the acceptable daily intake level of 40mg per 1kg of body weight determined by Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), is safe. Therefore, as aspartame is used in many fields, it seems that discussions on various perspectives on aspartame have been triggered in terms of health concerns. 
As controversy of its safety has arisen, some food industries have considered replacing aspartame. There was a movement in large supermarkets to replace the aspartame in private brand products with different sweeteners. For example, E-Mart decided to replace aspartame in the sugar-free drinks of its own brand, No Brand, with sucralose which is another artificial sweetener. This decision is an effort to minimize the use of aspartame, which has been discussed as a possible carcinogen. An official in the distribution industry said, "The fear of aspartame that has been spreading will ease somewhat, but as consumers are sensitive to food safety, there is no change in our policy to eliminate aspartame."7) This means that there is a movement to reduce the use of aspartame in consideration of consumers' concerns about related controversy. Along with this corporate response, the use of natural sugar, not refined sugar, is attracting attention. The term sugar-free means not adding sugar to food, but instead adding a sweetener to replace it. Unlike this, unsweetened food includes natural sugar without artificially added refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. Food companies such as Samyang Corporation have focused on producing allulose, natural sugar which is found in figs and raisins, showing the company's interest in diverse alternatives. As a result, companies are constantly exploring methods to minimize consumer anxiety and accordingly achieve higher sales profits.
Concern about the characteristics and side effects of alternative sweeteners has also begun to increase among consumers. As official claims regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners have not been officially unified, and not all companies have chosen another NSS as a substitute, consumers are left to choose whether or not to consume them based on their own judgment standards. An office worker in his 20s said, "I was worried at the beginning of the controversy, but it turns out that the level of possible carcinogens is lower than that of meat or fried food and similar to kimchi, so I don't really care. Although sugar-free drinks are not necessarily good, I think it's better than something with sugar."8) This means that consumers are prioritizing reducing their sugar intake over the potential risks posed by artificial sweetener. However, there are also positions that question the consumption of aspartame, which has not completely resolved controversy. They consume foods that use other artificial sweeteners instead of aspartame to reduce the risk of harm to health. Therefore, consumers are ultimately considering their health when it comes to consuming sugar-free foods. As much as the label that is understood to have zero sugar content has increased in popularity, there are also adverse effects of blindly focusing on minimizing sugar. Maltitol, which is used as a sugar substitute as it tastes sweet like sugar but is classified as a sugar alcohol, can cause side effects such as abdominal distension and diarrhea if consumed in excess. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety legally regulates that products containing sugar alcohol as the main raw material must not only list the type and content of the ingredient, but also display a warning that excessive consumption may cause diarrhea. As a result, paying attention to the ingredient labeling of sugar-free foods increases chances of preventing harmful side effects. Thus, for safety, the possible action at the moment is to avoid consumption on the basis of unconditional belief.




Making better choices for one's health

Sugar-free foods that are sweetened with non-sugar sweeteners are gaining in popularity, appearing in a variety of products such as beverages and snacks. They fit with the recent trend for healthy pleasure and as a way to prevent diseases such as diabetes. Moreover, it has become an advantageous marketing strategy for companies to save on production costs. However, as controversy over sweeteners arises, interest in the side effects that ingredients in sugar-free foods may cause is also growing. As various opinions are being expressed about the safety of sugar-free foods, it seems that consumers need to consider all sides before consuming them.


1) An Jae-hyeong, "No Sugar, No Calories, Just Fresh... Zero Food Surge Aimed at Healthy Pleasure", Maeil Business Newspaper, February 1, 2023

2) Ryu Ho, "'Zero Sugar Soju' Enjoyed by Mz... "Is Sweetener Okay? It's Alcohol, There's No Difference in Calories"", Hankook Ilbo, February 4, 2023

3) Lee So-a, "'If It's Delicious, It's 0 Calories.' This Drink Doesn't Require Dieting", JoongAng Ilbo, March 25, 2022

4) Shin Min-kyung, "Lotte Well Food Launches Zero 'Cookies & Cream Sand and Mild Chocolate'", News1, October 20, 2023

5) Kim Tae-ho, "Artificial Sweetener That Is 700 Times Sweeter Than Sugar... Once Used to Produce Diluted Soju", Munhwa Ilbo, May 2, 2022

6) Hong Jun-ki, "Who Scientist: "Don't Try to Replace Sugar, but Reduce Your Intake of Sweet Foods"", Chosun Ilbo, November 25, 2023

7) Ha Soo-jung, Yang Ji-yoon, ""Who Will Eat It?"... Even After the Aspartame Controversy Is Over, Some Companies Stopped Using It", The Korea Economic Daily, July 14, 2023

8) Park Hong-ju, "Consumers Are Confused by Aspartame's Designation as a Carcinogen... Is 'Zero' Okay?", Maeil Business Newspaper, July 19, 2023

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