[NEWS IN FOCUS] Zero-sugar snacks get a 10 for popularity, but incomplete for safety

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[NEWS IN FOCUS] Zero-sugar snacks get a 10 for popularity, but incomplete for safety

Bottles of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar are displayed at a discount mart in Seoul on Oct. 9. [YONHAP]

Bottles of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar are displayed at a discount mart in Seoul on Oct. 9. [YONHAP]

Demand for zero-sugar drinks and snacks is soaring in Korea as consumers wishing to shed a few pounds opt for the alternative products.
But whether these zero-sugar products actually help people lose weight is up for debate.
The question has been asked by countless consumers, reflected by the endless posts on social media comparing the calories of these products, and some even conducting their own science experiments to see if the snacks truly are free of sugar.
People relaying the experience doing challenges such as drinking only zero-sugar Coca-Cola for 10 days or boiling the beverage to see if there is any sugar can easily be found on YouTube.
Many of these products do have a lower calorie count than their sugar-containing counterparts, as they use artificial sweeteners instead of sugar, most of which are advertised as having no or few calories.
“Zero-sugar products refer to those that have zero calories [coming from sugar], and they contain artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose,” said Lee Hye-jun, a clinical assistant professor at the department of family medicine at Chung-Ang University Hospital.
“These artificial sweeteners are not absorbed by the body but only excreted, so they do not have any calories. But their sweetness is 600 times higher than that of sugar.”
Artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners, are used to create the same sweetness as that of regular sugar.
Some widely-used sugar substitutes in zero-sugar products include sucralose, saccharine and aspartame.
Whether or not these substances are safe to consume has long been debated by experts.
“Artificial sweeteners that food companies use to replace sugar are all accepted by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives,” said Kwon Hoon-jeong, a food nutrition professor at Seoul National University, referring to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
“This committee conducts different experiments, including animal tests, to see whether substances are safe for consumption, even taking eating habits of people in different countries into account.”
According to Kwon, the data is revisited every five years to make any updates as people’s eating habits change over time.
“Most products use less than the maximum amount that these artificial sweeteners are known to be safe, so these food additives, which have gone through toxicity tests, are deemed as safe to be consumed even in the long term,” Kwon added.
The acceptable daily intake of saccharin is 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight and that of aspartame is 40 milligrams per kilogram, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Administration. In order to reach this threshold, 33 250-milliliter-cans of Chilsung Cider Zero and 56 250-milliliter-cans of Diet Coke would need to be consumed a day.
Although a minimal amount of these sweeteners are contained in products, and experiments show they are safe for consumers, some still say we should be aware of the potential risk that these sugar substitutes may have.
“There has been no consensus regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners,” said Lee from Chung-Ang University.
“Side effects, such as disruption to digestion, the possibility of being carcinogenic, potential side effects to the cardiovascular system and allergies, have been raised, so we should be careful in consuming them."
Lee continued, "As the study of their safety is still ongoing, I would like to caution children and pregnant women to take extreme care in consuming them.”
Foods with these sweeteners may appeal most to those who are on a diet but are craving something sweet.
However, as these sugar substitutes are used in combination with other ingredients in the products, the total calorie amount of the products will differ regardless.
Experts also say replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners may increase the possibility of people becoming addicted to the sweet foods.
“The sweet taste activates the reward center of our brain, letting people rely more on the sweetness and become addicted,” Lee added.
Carbonated drinks may be the most common type of these zero-sugar or low-sugar products due to the introduction of beverages such as Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, which was introduced to the Korean market in 2006.
The idea has since expanded to more types of beverages as the demand surges in Korea.


Lotte Chilsung Beverage released its Chilsung Cider Zero in January 2021 and sold over 100 million cans in just nine months after hitting the shelves. The drink makes use of sugar substitutes, such as sucralose and allulose.
The company also sells Pepsi Cola Zero Sugar and Pepsi Zero Sugar Lime.
Limited edition flavor of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar [COCA-COLA]

Limited edition flavor of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar [COCA-COLA]

Coca-Cola Zero Sugar also proved to be a go-to for many Korean consumers, as sales of the sugar-free drink rose 29 percent in the third quarter this year, according to its distributor LG Household & Healthcare.
“Sales of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar rose rapidly in the early stages of the pandemic,” said a spokesperson for Coca-Cola Korea.
“People’s high interest in their health and online orders that require consumers to buy in bulk were some major factors.”
According to convenience store CU on Oct. 30, sales of zero-sugar drinks rose 112.5 percent on year from January to October.
The concept has now expanded to snack items.
Lotte Confectionery's zero-sugar snack brand ZERO [LOTTE CONFECTIONERY]

Lotte Confectionery's zero-sugar snack brand ZERO [LOTTE CONFECTIONERY]

Lotte Confectionery introduced ZERO, a no-sugar snack brand, in May this year. Five different sugar-free snack products are sold under the brand, such as cookies, ice cream and gummies.
“We have set the taste [of the snack] as the most important value when developing the product, as it shouldn’t be any less tasty just because it contains sugar substitutes,” said a spokesperson for Lotte Confectionery.
Sales of ZERO exceeded 2 billion won ($1.4 million) a month after it was introduced to the market, and the snack maker says it has plans to release more types of these sugar-free products, such as chocolates and candies.
Even alcoholic beverages are becoming sugar-free.
Korean soju Saero 257 [LOTTE CHILSUNG BEVERAGE]

Korean soju Saero 257 [LOTTE CHILSUNG BEVERAGE]

Lotte Chilsung Beverage introduced a sugar-free version of its soju Chum-Churum called Saero 257 on Sept. 14. It sold 6.8 million bottles in just a month after its release, according to the company.
“The new soju goes in line with the new drinking culture among the so-called MZ generation, which is healthy pleasure,” said a spokesperson for the beverage company.


Hite Jinro Beverage also renewed its Hite Zero0.00 in 2021, which is known to be alcohol-, calorie- and sugar-free. Sales of the product rose twofold on year, to 21 million cans in 2021.
Some of these products are marketed as zero-calorie products because they do not contain sugar; however, some actually do contain calories.
“The 350-milliliter Hite Zero0.00 contains 13.9 calories, but it is classified as a noncaloric beverage, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Administration’s regulation,” said a spokesperson for Hite Jinro Beverage.
According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Administration, companies can market a product as noncaloric if it contains less than 4 calories per 100 grams.
“The Food Ministry’s regulation for zero-calorie products is not ideal,” said Lee Eun-hee, a consumer science professor at Inha University.
“As nutritional information is written on most products these days, companies are not exactly hiding information from consumers.
But there would be a need to amend the regulation,” Prof. Lee said, as marking the product as having zero sugar and marketing them as zero calories is not being entirely truthful to consumers.
Despite the controversy, the related market is anticipated to grow further. The market for zero-sugar carbonated drinks grew fivefold in just two years, from 45.2 billion won in 2019 to 218.9 billion won in 2021, according to Euromonitor.
“I always only go for zero-sugar products,” said Lee Jun-ho, a 24-year-old who enjoys carbonated drinks.
“It would be better if companies explicitly write the exact calories on the product, but I regularly drink them because they still have much fewer calories than other products.”

BY CHO JUNG-WOO [cho.jungwoo1@joongang.co.kr]
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