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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sugar-free soju snags health conscious drinkers but still packs a calorific punch

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Soju is distilled liquor made with rice or other starches like tapioca [JOONGANG ILBO]

Humans may not be able to fully cheat the consequences of pleasure, but local soju companies are helping people shake off some of twinges of guilt with sugarless spirits.  
Hite Jinro, a local liquor company with the largest market share, relaunched its entire Jinro Soju product line last week and now, it will only be selling Jinro Soju without sugar.  

Its mascot, which is a chubby blue-and-white toad, has slimmed down in advertisements for the new and improved soju with a slogan that reads “With zero sugar, the super clean flavor ribbit goes up!”  

Lotte Chilsung Beverage’s sugar-free soju Chum Churum Saero, often just called Saero, is arguably the hottest commercial soju today, selling over 30 million bottles between September, when it hit the market, to December.  

Advertisement for the new zero-sugar Jinro Soju [HITE JINRO]
Advertisement for the new zero-sugar Jinro Soju [HITE JINRO]

The first sugar-free soju to launch was Good Day Soju from local liquor company Muhak, in 2019, followed by sugar-free soju from Daesun Distilling early last year.

The hype of zero-sugar soju began as the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and Fair Trade Commission pushed to get liquor companies to post nutritional content, including calories, on their bottles, citing people’s right to knowledge as it is a substance that is often blamed for accidents and illnesses.  

Soju is rich in calories, on average 408 calories per 360-milliliter (12-ounce) bottle, which is more than three times higher than a can of beer, according to Korea Consumer Agency’s 2019 report.

Starting January this year, companies seeing more than 12 billion won ($6.7 million) in profits are required to post such nutritional information, but major soju brands are diverting consumers’ attention from the tiny black numbers on the backs of bottles with flashy zero-sugar labels.  

New sugar-free soju are appealing to many locals looking to indulge in what these liquor companies are heralding as a “healthy pleasure.” Products are advertised as aiding with weight loss and having a “lighter” and “cleaner” taste.  

Advertisement for Good Day Soju hints weight loss [MUHAK]
Advertisement for Good Day Soju hints weight loss [MUHAK]

“I enjoy drinking soju but had been conscious about calorie intake because I knew it was high,” said student Hur Young-eun, 26. “So when I heard that there was soju that was sugar-free, I was definitely glad to have that option. And when I tried it, it wasn’t less tasty than the original soju. Actually, I thought it tasted better because that particular taste and smell of alcohol were milder and it felt smoother down the throat. Also, even though it was sugar-free, the slight sweetness was still there!”  

On average, a bottle of soju has 0.18 grams of sugar, according to Korea Consumer Agency. It is comprised of fructose and other natural sugar substitutes to balance out the acridness and craft a flavor that tastes good to the palate.  

That number has been driven down to zero in the newer versions of soju which replace fructose with other more high-potency sweeteners like erythritol and stevia. Sugar-free sojus have around three to four natural sugar additives listed on their nutritional content.  

Natural sugar substitutes have no proven side effects and their safety for human consumption has long been established, according to Cheong Chul, author of “Introduction to Distilled Spirits” (2022) and professor of industry studies at Seoul Venture University.  

“They have sweetness similar to that of sugar, and yet are much lower in calories than sugar because the human body does not absorb nearly any of it.”

But even though its sugar content is zero, sugar-free soju still has an average of 326 calories per 360-milliliter bottle, which is still more than the same amount of red wine, makgeolli (Korean traditional rice wine) and beer, according to the Korea Consumer Agency.  

And the decrease in calories in sugar-free soju isn’t entirely due to the zeroed sugar content, but also the lowered alcohol volume which often goes less noticed because of the zero-sugar buzz.  

The four sugar-free soju brands on the market have all lowered their alcohol by volume (ABV) content, 16.5 percent to 16 percent for Saero and Jinro Soju; and 16.9 percent to 16.5 percent for Daesun and Good Day Soju.  

“0.18 grams of sugar is a very little amount that doesn’t have a significant impact on lowering the calories of soju, but what does make a difference is decreased alcohol content,” said Cheong. To compare, Coca-Cola has 35 grams of sugar per 330-milliliter can and tonic water has 25 grams of sugar per 250-milliliter bottle. 

“One gram of 100-percent pure alcohol amounts to seven calories, so naturally, drinks with higher amounts of alcohol have higher calories.”  

Commercial soju has actually been growing milder in terms of alcohol content over the past several decades. In 1924, Jinro, the first liquor company in Korea, launched soju with an ABV of 35 percent. It dropped to 30 percent in 1965 and 25 percent in 1973. The numbers continued to decrease and nowadays, soju has around 16 percent ABV, slightly differing depending on the brand. Though some criticize that it is soju companies’ sly marketing methods to sell more bottles, milder soju is popular among locals.  

Four different brands of zero-sugar soju are currently on the market. From left, they are Chum Churum Saero, Good Day Soju, Jinro Soju and Daesun. [LOTTE CHILSUNG BEVERAGE, MUHAK, HITE JINRO, DAESUN DISTILLING]
Four different brands of zero-sugar soju are currently on the market. From left, they are Chum Churum Saero, Good Day Soju, Jinro Soju and Daesun. [LOTTE CHILSUNG BEVERAGE, MUHAK, HITE JINRO, DAESUN DISTILLING]

“I didn’t like soju before because of the strong alcohol smell, but zero-sugar alcohol like Saero doesn’t have that and tastes less aggressive to me,” said office worker Lee So-yeon, 25.

“It’s a good and casual drink that I can enjoy with my friends without having to worry about getting too drunk,” said Hur.  

As much as zero-sugar soju seems like the better option of its kind today, Cheong outlined the potential dangers of drinking too much of it, saying that the drink is full of “empty calories.”  

“Soju cannot supply the so-called three major nutrients — carbohydrates, proteins, and fats — vitamins, and minerals necessary for basic nutritional metabolism, and only provides calories,” he said. “Though zero-sugar means that there is no sugar content that directly affects one’s calorie intake, the drink itself still has a lot of calories and drinking it too much can lead to an excess of it that isn’t burned up and becomes stored as fat in the body.”

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]