By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, July 14 (Yonhap) -- Kim Ji-na, a mom of two children, is on a postpartum diet and tries to eat food high in protein but low in calories so that she doesn't feel tired and grouchy.
On busy mornings, the 38-year-old often grabs protein bars made of egg whites and almond or packaged soy milk with added protein, vitamins and minerals. Sometimes, she munches on green tea chocolate sticks filled with protein to enjoy her snack without feeling guilty.
"I don't want to skip meals to lose weight, so I want something high in protein to feel full for longer," Kim said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency. "As I don't have enough time to have a full meal with meat and fresh vegetables three times a day, I included ready-to-drink protein beverages and snacks in my daily diet."
Kim is one of a growing number of health-conscious consumers in South Korea who are opting for protein bars, drinks and other supplements as meal replacements and snacks in their daily lives.
Classic protein supplements are mainly targeted at hardcore gym-goers and amateur athletes who want to build muscle and aid recovery after a serious workout, but a new wave of protein-heavy products are luring busy and active consumers to the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores.
Market watchers say the recent rise of protein products among ordinary people reflect their changing diet habits in line with rising awareness of their well-being amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.
"As more people try to reduce their carbohydrate intake to stay fit, they prefer to eat more protein to cope with weight gain during the pandemic and avoid muscle loss," said Moon Jung-hoon, a professor of information management in agriculture and the food business at Seoul National University.
"It seems like more people in their 20s and 30s find it easy to drink protein drinks to have some sort of comfort in mind because regularly having a full meal with meat is burdensome and expensive."
To capture a growing share of the niche segment, major food companies have released a wide range of protein-heavy products, with some under specialized brands, to appeal to a broader consumer base.
Maeil Dairies Co., the nation's leading dairy company, took notice of the growth potential of the protein market, introducing protein powder, drinks and bars through its Selex brand in late 2018, and its marketing strategy paid off.
Sales of protein-heavy products under the Selex brand doubled to 50 billion won (US$43 million) in 2020 from a year ago and now it aims to earn over 70 billion won in the segment this year.
Food and beverage company Hy, previously known as Korea Yakult, also launched a new brand, Protein Code, to target the fast-growing segment with protein-enriched products.
Orion Corp., a major confectionery company, has released various new products, ranging from drinks and cereal bars to prepackaged coffee enriched with protein, as well as essential vitamins and minerals.
Riding the latest trend, the domestic protein-based food market jumped from 6.4 billion won in 2018 to 24 billion won in 2020, and the market was estimated to grow to over 55 billion won this year, according to industry data.
Market watchers say the growing protein market is part of the global trend driven by the increasing consciousness of a balanced and nutrient-rich diet, expecting strong demand in the Asia-Pacific region beyond North America.
"The major share of this segment is mainly attributed to their higher demand with ease in handling & transport, cost effectiveness," ResearchAndMarkets.com said in a report. "Asia-Pacific is developing and expanding at a significant pace. Among other regional markets, Asia-Pacific is demonstrating signs of strong growth in the near future."
While eating an adequate amount of protein can help fuel energy and maintain muscle, experts recommend consumers carefully examine ingredients of grab-and-go protein products to see if they contain too much sugar or other additives that may have adverse effects on their diet.
In response to the heated competition to promote their protein products, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in May conducted inspections into about 600 protein bars available in the market and ordered 21 products to correct their labels that exaggerated their health benefits.
"Long-term consumption of protein bars could have negative effects on energy metabolism as they contain higher ratios of saturated fat than carbohydrates," the ministry's monitoring team composed of outside experts said in a report. "It is desirable to eat protein bars as snacks in between meals."