Tips on how to understand Korean food labels

Trust me, I know… Learning a language can be hard, it can take a lot of time and effort to master it. And it requires constant training to keep your language skills polished. At first, a foreign language may seem like a barrier.

A typical food label in Korean contains a lot of information, but it can appear confusing.

BUT! Language is also a tool. In terms of dietary restrictions or personal preferences, it is a vital piece of equipment when searching for what you and your body need. So in this regard, it’s a survival skill. Especially in a country like Korea, foreigners do not have access to certain areas of its culture and life without understanding the local language. 🇰🇷 To provide examples regarding food, most restaurants do not possess international menus and food labels are written in Korean. On top of that, few people working in the food sector have a good command of foreign languages, so asking them for detailed information may be difficult. 🚫🇨🇳🇬🇧🇯🇵

But you know what? You don’t have to possess advanced Korean language skills, when hunting for food!

For now, it’s enough if you are able to read Korean. Korean language uses a writing system which is not complicated! First off, it’s an alphabet. This alphabet is referred to as hangeul (한글) and it consists of only 22 letters! That’s less than the Latin alphabet, which is used (in adapted form) in contemporary English, Spanish, German, French, Italian etc.! If you have mastered the Latin alphabet, the Korean alphabet will be as easy as pie! 🍰

When you know Korean letters, you have the skill to read (and write) Korean words. That does not mean that you automatically understand their meaning, but you can read them aloud or write them using a more familiar writing system. For instance, you see the word 고기 and you know it’s read as “gogi“.

Congratulations! You now possess the skills to read Korean menus as well as the ingredients printed on food items!

Next, all you need to know is how to spell the food you want to avoid. If you check one item’s ingredient list and you spot something you do not want to consume, then you can stop deciphering the rest. Saves you time! [Find what you CAN eat by eliminating what you cannot. Basic routine of ‘picky eaters’…]

But there is an immense diversity of words for food! The list of ingredients and the corresponding list of vocabulary may appear endless! Especially today, where we distinguish between things such as dextrose, oligosaccharide and glucose-fructose-syrup, beside honey and [plain white refined] sugar. And then, there is a wider array of food sources in general, resulting in lists specifying e.g. corn starch🌽, potato starch🥔, tapioca starch🍠, water chestnut starch🌰 and modified starch…

Does that mean you need to learn all these words in Korean???
No.
A few basic words will suffice!
If you know that “gogi” means meat🥩 in Korean, then you can avoid anything containing the word “gogi“. This includes 돼지고기🐖, 쇠고기🐄 , 닭고기🐓 and so forth. You know right away, that these letters describe meat.* Simple, right?

Depending on the type of diet you are following, there are different words that will be of interest to you. Basically, knowing that set of Korean vocabulary is enough. Pescetarians🚫🥩 and people eating hindu🚫🐄, halal or kosher 🚫🐖 are probably fine knowing meat-related vocabulary. To this, vegetarians can simply add words regarding fish, seafood and insects.** 🚫🐟🦑🐛 For vegans, the list will include meat, fish, seafood, insects, eggs, dairy and honey. 🚫🥩🐟🦑🐛🥚🥛🍯 Someone with gluten intolerance may consider studying words denoting wheat products and the likes. 🚫🌾

Does it seem to get complicated again?

How to understand food labels written in Korean – the easy way!

Here’s good news: Recently, labels on Korean food items have become more comprehensible. While food (and bio-chemical) companies are constantly creating new food items, “magical” food additives and confusing names for ingredients, food labels are getting longer and longer. Sometimes, the ingredient section of the food label is not even printed in a legible way! However, reading the entire list and understanding each single word written in Korean is not necessary to determine whether something is vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free! On newly designed food packages, there is now an additional notice, which was introduced for people with allergies. Essential information!

Next to the (detailed) list of ingredients, there are a couple of words which are normally highlighted by a different color, written inside a separate text box or otherwise visibly marked. It may look something like this:

Note the characters 함유 (hamyu), which mean “contain” or “include”. And then pay attention to whatever is written in front of it. This is where the key sources of ingredients containing potential allergens are briefly mentioned.

In above example, the food item was produced with ingredients which originate from milk (우유 uyu), peanuts (땅콩 ddangkong), egg (계란 gyeran), wheat (밀 mil), beef (쇠고기 sogogi) and soy (대두 daedu). In other words, it contains allergens from dairy🥛, egg🥚, gluten🌾, legumes🥜 as well as cow meat🐄.

Spotting critical ingredients in food products can be this easy!***

Curious what food item is made from this combination of ingredients? In case you were wondering, here’s the answer:

They LOOK like chocolate-filled cookies shaped like edible little (base)balls. 🍪 They possess the PROMISING name “Home Run Ball” (홈런볼). ⚾️ And they contain quite a number of “interesting” ingredients. 😯 But what’s beef got to do in there? That’s exactly what I was wondering, too… 🤯 By the way, the “함유-listing” is not to be confused with the disclaimer mentioning that the item was produced in a factory processing other foods and therefore may contain traces of those. Beef in the form of beef tallow / suet (우지 uji) is specified among the actual ingredients!

As you can see, there are no real excuses for not learning Korean! At least some.
Come on, sit your bum down already and learn those 22 Korean letters! And then make your very own set of Korean vocabulary. That’s perhaps no more than a dozen words. The rest is practice and application in real life!

Why you need to be able to read Korean on food labels

And there will be tons of opportunities for you to train! In daily life, you will be able to use your skills regularly! Because you technically need to check the label of every food item! Even if you find one thing that is vegan/vegetarian, a different company will have their own recipe which may include animal products.

Just to give you some examples, oftentimes, there is gelatin hidden in yogurt and candy, most bakery products contain dairy, and fish sauce or anchovy powder are common ingredients because they ‘enhance the flavor’. There are even noodles, which consist of powdered egg shells or ground shellfish! [Why??? 🤔] In addition to that, large and international brands adapt their recipes to the local taste, so familiar foods such as oreo cookies taste less sweet and contain components of dairy (whey powder and lactose) in Korea. [Oreos are NOT VEGAN in Korea!!! 😱]

Oreo cookies listing wheat, milk and soy as allergens.

What are the benefits of learning how to read Korean food labels?

If I haven’t made my point clear enough already, let me put it this way:
It’s a vital skill that enables you to identify food. It gives you the freedom to decide what you purchase and what you consume. It’s for more independence and self-determination with regards to your diet and lifestyle.

Best is: You can start out by studying the Korean alphabet by yourself, without signing up for Korean classes. You also do not need to worry about pronunciation, yet. For the beginning, it’s enough if you can quietly read and understand the basics. There is no need to bother memorizing massive amounts of vocabulary. Simply focus on what is important for your survival in Korea’s food jungle.

Eventually, when you go shopping for groceries or search for snacks at a convenience store in Korea, you can check the food labels on your own. Do apply your newly acquired skills in real life! Then you will quickly improve your reading skills and grow accustomed to the necessary vocabulary. Don’t forget that, after all, practice makes perfect.

Additional notes by the author

*) Here’s a wonderful exception to above rule: The word 콩고기 (kong gogi) translates literally to “bean meat” and denotes meat imitations based on soy, seitan (wheat protein aka gluten) or a mixture of both. In other words, it’s a vegan alternative to real meat. Important vocabulary, nevertheless! But not necessarily something you might want to avoid, unless you dislike processed foods overall.

**) Yes, insects! Traditional Korean cuisine is not actually characterized by insects, but there is one common street food item, which is made from the pupa of silk worms: Beondegi (번데기).

***) Unfortunately, not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging. Thus, this technique does not serve as the universal tool to rule out non-vegan or non-vegetarian foods. As a rule of thumb, however, fish products🐟 are normally not added to sweet food items.