Health effects of aspartame unsettle Korea’s makgeolli market

With WHO’s pending decision, makgeolli makers are concerned about misleading consumers, but mulls adjusting recipes to reduce health fears.

Shim Woo-hyun

Shim Woo-hyun

The Korea Herald


A customer browses a makgeolli section at a discount store in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

July 7, 2023

SEOUL – Reports that aspartame, a widely used artificial sweetener, could be reclassified as a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization have sparked alarm among Korea’s makgeolli makers and consumers.

Makgeolli, or Korean rice wine, is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks here. In 2021, the makgeolli market was estimated at around 510 billion won ($392 million), with its exports reaching $15.8 million, up 26.8 percent from a year ago, according to data from the Food Information Statistics System.

“(Makgeolli makers) will take joint actions if aspartame becomes categorized as a carcinogen,” said an official from Seoul Jangsoo, which accounts for around 40 percent of the makgeolli market.

“(We) will also consider making changes in our recipes to not to use aspartame if needed,” the official added.

The response comes as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the WHO’s cancer research arm, is expected to declare the artificial sweetener as a possible carcinogen on July 14.

Rising concerns among consumers have also made makgeolli firms take preemptive measures.

“I like drinking makgeolli, but I may shift to other drink options if the artificial sweetener is a carcinogen,” said a 36-year-old man surnamed Choi living in Seoul.

Despite the underlying concerns over aspartame, sales of makgeolli have remained steady.

Sales of makgeolli at CU convenience stores between July 1-3, right after reports on aspartame released, dropped by 3 percent compared to a week ago, according to the CU chain store operator.

One industry source said sales have not been impacted much, “at least for now,” without the official ruling.

“But, it may hurt the industry from a long-term perspective if the WHO decides so,” the source said.

The source also raised concerns that the IARC ruling could mislead customers into thinking aspartame is relatively safer than other carcinogens.

According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety’s report in 2021, a 60-kilogram adult would have to drink around 33 bottles of makgeolli for it to exceed the acceptable daily intake for aspartame. Another ministry report published in 2019 also said Koreans’ daily aspartame intake remained at only 0.12 percent of acceptable levels.

“(The country’s) aspartame intake remained at low levels before and is still low now,” a Food Ministry spokesperson said Monday.

“The ministry will consult experts and observe how other countries respond to the change if made.”

The IARC ruling does not always influence the Korean government’s policymaking. When the IARC categorized processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A) in 2015, the classification had not brought significant changes to the country’s food policies.

Aspartame is expected to be labeled as possibly carcinogenic to humans, under Group 2B, which includes aloe vera leaves and electromagnetic radiation, reports said.

Some have argued that classifying aspartame as a possible cancer risk can cause unnecessary confusion.

“Whether makgeolli has aspartame or not has not been much of a concern because the amount of aspartame that makgeolli has seems to be low and not as risky as other carcinogens that we take through meats and other foods,” said a regular makgeolli drinker who did not want to be named.

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