Saengsik: The drink everyone is talking about

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Saengsik: The drink everyone is talking about

When Lee Mi-sook, 52, began having digestive problems that did not improve after visits to her family doctor, her younger sister suggested she try saengsik, a powdered form of natural food. For the past eight months, Mrs. Lee has been taking saengsik, which she drinks by mixing the ingredients in glass of pure or soya milk for breakfast or lunch.

The results have been startling. Mrs. Lee, the vice-principal of a Seoul middle school, says, "My body has gotten lighter and I no longer have problems with my stomach. No wonder everyone's taking it."

Saengsik, which means "living food," is a much-discussed topic of conversation these days. The health food first emerged five years ago on the peninsula and its sales have grown an average of 40 percent per year to form a 200 billion won industry.

Saengsik has been called the latest diet drink or the newest form of breakfast cereal. And, it's made in Korea.

What really got Mrs. Lee interested in saengsik was her younger sister whose health had improved remarkably by taking saengsik. "I saw my sister's facial texture improve and the peeling of her feet -- a sign of aging -- had virtually vanished," says Mrs. Lee. Saengsik is also known to bring color to one's face, cure constipation, aid weight loss, and even, perhaps, ease diabetes.

Some beg to differ. Seong Jeong-min took saengsik for a year before quitting in 1999. "When you decide to have saengsik, you are sacrificing your social life," he says. "If you decide to take saengsik as a meal, you miss all the eating and drinking with your friends and colleagues. Supposedly, there are no side effects from saengsik, but my skin didn't get better as a result of the stuff."

Once, when Mr. Seong was in college, several of his friends went out to lunch after a class and he wound up sitting alone on a bench, drinking his glass of saengsik.

"The downside to taking this type of health food," he says, "is that you lose a lot of joy in your life."

Saengsik is made from a mixture of vegetables, grains, mushrooms and marine plants that are freeze-dried and then ground into a powder. A single packet contains 40 grams of dried nutrients, or 160 calories, which must be taken with 200 milliliters of water, milk or juice. To lift the taste, honey can be added.

Erom Life, a company that produces a series of "Hwang Sung-ju saengsik," named after Erom's founder, was the first of its kind to develop the health food. Last year, Pulmuone came up with "Jeongsik," a type of saengsik that adds the germ of black rice to enhance for a sweeter taste.

Currently, there are nearly 90 different companies that manufacture saengsik in Korea, mostly small or medium-size businesses, but in the past few years large conglomerates such as Daesang and Cheil Jedang have entered the market. A single box containing 30 packets costs between 55,000 won ($45) and 78,000 won. The amount of saengsik a devotee uses varies. Some people consume one packet a day. Others, three.

There are packets of saengsik aimed specifically at adults, ones for students who are cramming for exams, saengsik for children, for women on diets and even packets for senior citizens. Products differ according to the ingredients.

With the growing specialization of saengsik products, companies have even diversified their sales pitches. The supermodel Lee Sora plans to peddle "Super Sora Power" through her Web site. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of saengsik is sold door-to-door.

Products such as "Kim So-hyeong Misik," a type of saengsik named after a well-known Chinese medical doctor, sells exclusively to homeshopping network watchers and pharmacies. Online purchasing of saengsik is also possible, but not all of the many kinds of saengsik are available. The bigger department stores carry saengsik, though generally only four or five brands.

Before saengsik came on the scene, seonsik, or "food for mountain spirits," was a popular health drink that people used, most often, as a quick breakfast. Seonsik, which is still around, is a form of powdered grain and vegetables that, unlike saengsik, is roasted before being processed in a sealed packet.

"Seonsik is merely an alternative for breakfast," says Kim Tae-hoon, a manager at Pulmuone. "Because sunshik is mostly made up of roasted cereals, nourishing ingredients such as vitamins and enzymes are frequently destroyed through the process. Saengsik, on the other hand, preserves all the natural ingredients through the freeze-dried processing."

In ancient times, elders who suffered from illnesses ate saengsik with their main meal. Instead of consuming a freeze-dried product, people heated vegetables and grains in the sun. The food was thought to be beneficial to those who were run down.

"Saengsik helps strengthen the immune system," Mr. Kim says. "Instead of curing diseases, it helps people regain their natural fitness."

Nowadays, Mrs. Lee is trying to persuade her three grown daughters to take saengsik. She has even bought specialized packets calcium enhancers to add to the saengsik. But like many newcomers, her daughters find the taste unsavory.

"Because many young people can't stand the flat taste of saengsik, there are products that mix saengsik and sunshik so that it will be more palatable," says Lee Seong-ja, a saleswoman at Lotte Department Store. Indeed, because it is freeze-dried, the saengsik has an unusual taste that some say resembles dried grass. More than a few saengsik users have complained of gastric problems -- after they drank it.

That is why saengsik firms advise first-timers to mix a packet with something that is familiar. "It takes approximately six months to adapt fully to saengsik," says Kim So-young of Erom Life. The adaptation phase may bring diarrhea and skin problems, along with the feeling of an empty stomach. Many saengsik firms have professional nutritionists and counselors on call who will help customers adapt.

"Some people mistake saengsik as a herbal medicine drink that will heal physical ills, but that's not the case," says Mrs. Lee, the school vice principal.

Saengsik is exported to 12 countries. "To really see results, you probably have to take saengsik regularly, at least once a day, for an extended period of time," says Mrs. Lee.

Is saengsik is the elixir of life? "I've run into problems after taking saengsik," says Shin Sun-wha, who has been taking saengsik for more than six months, At first she tried Erom Life's "Hwang Sungju saengsik" but later switched to Pulmuone's "Jeongsik" because the former's taste made her nauseated.

"I haven't found saengsik to be extraordinarily helpful to my health," says Ms. Shin, "but it does beat having a croissant for breakfast."

by Choi Jie-ho

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