January 2, 2024
SEOUL – “I really shouldn’t have drunk so much last night” is a common reflection worldwide the morning after a night of indulgence.
In Korea, this sentiment often includes an additional regret: “I should have at least taken one of those hangover cures.”
As one of the world’s heaviest drinking nations — particularly of liquor — this Northeast Asian country has a thriving market for hangover remedies, available in all imaginable forms, flavors and price points.
A typical convenience store in Seoul is well-stocked with soju — the country’s beloved distilled liquor consumed at a rate of 53 bottles per capita annually — and various other alcoholic beverages, along with an array of “anju,” or food items meant to be enjoyed alongside such drinks. And there is always a wide selection of hangover remedies available for prospective drinkers to choose from.
Could these “cures” be the secret to why Korea continues to report impressive progress in many competitive fields and does not trip over itself like a drunkard, despite the massive consumption of liquor here each year?
‘Your hangover, my business’
The market for hangover cures was valued at 312.8 billion won ($241 million) in 2022, as per data from Nielsen Korea. The sector experienced nearly a 40 percent on-year surge in sales from 2021, largely attributable to a combination of the easing of pandemic-induced social distancing measures and pent-up demand for people to gather and drink.
Industry insiders say the boost in sales was also driven by demand from millennials and Generation Z.
A survey conducted of 2,000 adults by Lotte Group’s membership service, Lotte Members, in June and July revealed that young drinkers in their 20s and 30s were more inclined to grab the anti-hangover products than their older counterparts.
The highest figure, 16 percent, was recorded for people in their 20s, followed by 15 percent for those in their 30s, while just 5 percent of respondents in their 50s and older expressed the same interest.
The survey findings also revealed that younger consumers exhibited a greater preference for anti-hangover products in solid forms like gelatin, gummies and pills, whereas older buyers leaned toward beverages.
In South Korea, hangover cures have been primarily drinkable liquids in small shot-style bottles, epitomized by the likes of Condition, Dawn 808 and Morning Care. They are usually priced within the range of 5,000 to 10,000 won.
Condition, made by pharmaceutical company HK inno.N, was Korea’s first anti-hangover product when it debuted in 1992. The trailblazing product still leads the local market with a share of over 40 percent.
Nowadays, nondrinkable products like gummies and pills made from plant extracts and priced in a typical range of 2,000 to 4,000 won are experiencing unprecedented sales, primarily driven by the purchasing power of young hangover relief seekers.
In alignment with this sentiment is 20-something Park Jun-soo, who prefers compact and sweet-tasting gelatin over hangover drinks. “They are easy to dispose of and more convenient to share with friends compared to bottled hangover items,” he told The Korea Herald. “Moreover, they are compact and readily available at the counter of most convenience stores.”
Keeping abreast of the preferences of younger consumers, food and pharmaceutical firms like Samyang, Chong Kun Dang and Dong-A Pharmaceutical have bolstered their anti-hangover product lines by adding fruit-flavored gelatin sticks.
Moreover, in tandem with new forms and flavors, many anti-hangover products are designed in vivid colors, incorporating graphics, characters or young celebrities in their packages to give off a youthful vibe.
The market leader, HK inno.N, introduced newly flavored — mango and plum — anti-hangover sticks in December, under the brand name of its iconic hangover drink, Condition. The company used Korean American rapper Jay Park to promote the products.
An official from the firm explained that the motive behind releasing the new products is to captivate the taste buds of young consumers. “Condition Stick has garnered favor among the younger crowd, positioning itself as a staple at social drinking events,” the official said.
Emerging businesses in the scene also showcase their newly developed products in such diverse forms as powders, candy, ice cream and heart-shaped chocolates to cater to the varied palates of consumers.
Take, for instance, comedy YouTube channel BDNS, which boasts over 1 million subscribers. In January, the channel partnered with the convenience store chain CU to introduce Happy Gummy, a sour gummy candy designed as a hangover helper. The product makes use of playful cartoon graphics in vibrant colors, giving it an appeal akin to a retro children’s candy.
Another recent sensation is Party Smart, chewable candies produced by Indian pharmaceutical company Himalaya. Alternating between ranking first and second in monthly sales at drugstore chain Olive Young, these soft chews have gained a reputation for ensuring a refreshing morning.
“Ever since I first tried these candies, I no longer look for other hangover remedies,” said Lee Ji-yeon, a Seoul resident in her 20s. “They are not only portable and tasty, but more importantly, they’re effective, mitigating my anxiety about drinking too much at a social meetup.”
Do they really work?
Hangover remedies primarily purport to focus on safeguarding the liver and counteracting the accumulation of acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism. Instructions vary, but they are typically intended for consumption before drinking or the next morning — or both. Their formulas typically incorporate a blend of ingredients, including herb and plant extracts such as of raisin tree and milk thistle, as well as taurine and vitamin B.
Despite the increasing number of anti-hangover seekers, the efficacy of these products in preventing or alleviating hangovers remains debatable. Most of them fall under the classification here of general food items, not health foods or nonprescription medicine.
In addressing the matter, South Korea plans to require scientific evidence to authorize the marketing of products as hangover cures starting from 2025.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety mandates that manufacturers of hangover cures conduct clinical trials and systematic reviews of the results to substantiate the functional claims of their products before engaging in such marketing activities.
According to industry insiders, these regulations would bring a significant change to the market, as the barriers to market entry are expected to rise substantially. Only those that successfully complete the process of validating their product functions will remain, with a possible price surge in hangover products, given the time and money invested for test data.