South Koreans eat more Western-style wheat treats as rice consumption falls

South Koreans are gradually eating more bread in place of the longtime staple rice as Western influence grows and bakeries gain popularity particularly with the country's on-the-go urbanites.

Bakeries spread in Seoul Capital Area as on-the-go urbanites look for more food convenience

Wheat-based pastries and other breads have caught on with trendy South Korean women, who can be seen enjoying Caffe Americanos and brightly coloured macarons in cafes across Seoul. (Bruce Harrison/CBC)

South Koreans, especially the country's on-the-go urbanites, are gradually eating more bread in place of the longtime staple rice.

As Western influence has grown over the past several decades, bakeries have become ubiquitous in the Seoul Capital Area, home to more than 25 million people or about half the country's population.

"Eating is kind of a fashion," says Won-seon Shin, a professor of food and nutrition at Seoul's Hanyang University.

Shin said it's hip to be seen snacking on Western treats or walking the streets with a Starbucks cup in your hand.

The average South Korea ate nearly 34 kilograms of wheat flour last year, a new record, while rice consumption fell to an all-time low. (Bruce Harrison/CBC)

Wheat flour consumption continues to grow, with the average South Korean eating roughly 32 kilograms in 2014, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show an average South Korean per capita consumption of 31.4 kilograms in 2009 and 33.6 kilograms in 2014.

Meanwhile, rice consumption continues to fall. According the ministry, each person ate slightly more than 65 kilograms of rice that year, the lowest amount on record.

In Canada, by comparison, the popularity of the products is reversed, with the availability of wheat products (57 kilograms per person) far exceeding the amount of rice available (seven kilograms) per person, according to Statistics Canada.

In Seoul, French bakery Demoiselle is taking advantage of Koreans' hunger for bread and pastries.

Owners Jean-Laurent Ducoin and Raphael Millot — ambitious young entrepreneurs from France — opened their first store last spring. Seven months later, they opened a second shop, an expansion they thought would take years.

"Everyone knows mademoiselle. Mademoiselle means my lady. Demoiselle means just lady," said Ducoin. "So we would like Koreans to be identified as a young Parisian girl, eating the macaron and coffee."

Munching macarons

The main reason for the name, Ducoin says, was marketing and attracting girls to the business.

He said 80 per cent of their customers are young Korean women who visit Demoiselle to sip Caffè Americanos and munch brightly coloured macarons. The espresso-based coffee and the French pastry are the bakery's best sellers, though its buttery croissants and baguettes sell well, too.

Macarons and other Western-style pastries have become popular with trendy South Koreans. (Bruce Harrison/CBC)

Demoiselle is small and tucked away on a side street downtown, unlike the thousands of franchise bakeries with bright neon sides run by South Korean food giant SPC Group. The conglomerate has opened its Paris Baguette Cafés in South Korea, China, the U.S. and even Paris.

In addition to wheat products' trendiness, food scientists say there are several factors contributing to the shift from the traditional rice to bread.

In an article published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers said South Korea's dietary transition sped up when the country began to import wheat from the U.S. to make up for food shortages that arose after 1969. From then on, many processed foods made from wheat flour, from bread to noodles — including ramen noodles — entered the food supply.

Spurred by South Korea's rapid industrialization and economic growth, the expanding diversity in choices has led to contemporary trends, including niche bakeries like Demoiselle and other sweet shops.

Convenience also plays a major role in the dietary choices.

High school student Young-ho Cho and his friends were hanging out in a Paris Baguette Café. Cho — halfway through a sweet roll of some sort — said he and his friends eat a lot baked goods, including rice-based ones, because it's quicker than traditional rice dishes.

"I don't think [students] have time. This is very easy," Cho said, pointing to his sweet roll.

Less time in the kitchen

Shin believes the desire for more convenient foods has increased because of a cultural ​breakdown in ​families.

She said as more women seek work and greater social lives, they spend less time in the kitchen, where they would traditionally prepare a stew with rice — and don't forget the traditional vegetable side dish kimchi — for breakfast.

"The mother has been busy and [Korean moms] do not know how to cook properly," said Shin.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the labour participation rate for women between the ages of 15 and 64 rose from 52 per cent in 2000 to 57 per cent in 2014 — still one of the lowest rates among OECD nations.

French-style breads and pastries have become popular in Seoul. (Bruce Harrison)

Also, among working Korean women in 2014, more than 70 per cent worked more than 40 hours a week. The OCED average was around 47 per cent in 2011.

Essentially, says Shin, Korean families are spending less time eating together at home, but workers have plenty of other options. Some bakeries are even in subway stations, so passengers can grab a danish as they race to the train.

Shin is less concerned about what's driving wheat consumption and more about the impact. She said the growing consumption of bread without striking a healthy balance — such as eating a meat or vegetable with a morning sweet roll — could lead to health issues such as obesity.

"The bread has a lot of fat and sugar, so it makes the children gain weight," said Shin, adding there are other young people who risk their health because they hardly eat at all.

"Just ask some teenager: What is the most important thing in your life? They may say my body shape. They are never concerned about nutrition — only body shape."