The new data comes after the number of South Koreans consuming health functional foods has risen steadily in recent years.
In 2012, there were 50.2 per cent of South Koreans purchasing such product, which increased to 60.6 per cent in 2017, 63.6 per cent in 2018, and 67.6 per cent in 2019.
Last year, the figure hit 68.9 per cent.
As of 2019, the country’s health functional food production was worth KRW$2.95tr (US$2.59bn).
Red ginseng, probiotics, vitamins and minerals, as well as EPA and DHA were the most produced products. Imports wise, complex nutrients, fructo-oligosaccharides, protein were the more popular choices.
One in three respondents said he/she purchased health functional foods due to friends’ recommendation, 24.4 per cent cited internet advertisement, and 11.2 per cent said it was due to home shopping advertisements.
Another 10.7 per cent said they were attracted to the hype created around a certain product.
The MFDS said findings of the survey would allow them to design education projects and improve existing policies on health functional foods.
“It turns out that consumers are relatively well aware of health functional foods and [the related] information,” it said.
Findings showed that 70.9 per cent of the respondents knew the differences between health functional foods and general foods.
Another 74.9 per cent said they could recognise the health functional foods logo granted to products certified by the MFDS.
The percentage of respondents who could recognise the logo had increased with time, rising from 59.3 per cent in 2017 to 69.9 per cent in 2019.
Weight loss hype
The ministry also caught a burgeoning number of weight loss products that were not supported by scientific evidence or made dubious claims.
Over 1,000 weight loss products sold online were examined and 574 of them were found to have made problematic claims and advertisements.
A breakdown showed that 273 of them have marketed their product wrongly as health functional foods, 200 made false or exaggerated claims, 76 claimed to prevent and/or treat diseases, 14 involved consumer deception, and 11 could be confused as a medicine.
For example, there are products that claim to be “diet pills”, “appetite suppressants”, and “diuretic drugs”, which could be mistaken as medicines.
On the other hand, there are advertising of products with functionalities not recognised by the MFDS, such as tea for reducing puffiness.
There are also cases whereby general foods were advertised as functional foods that claim to produce weight loss, skin improvement effects.
“This inspection was conducted to prevent damage to consumers, as the amount of [physical] activities have decreased due to COVID-19 and there is an increased interest and consumption of diet products,” the MFDS said.
It had requested the relevant authorities to block websites selling such products.