Get to Know Ginseng

Recently I boarded a plane with some classmates, and set off on a 20 hour journey to the other side of the world. First stop: Seoul, South Korea. We booked a tour to the demilitarized zone and let ourselves become immersed in the history and culture of a nation divided. After a serious, enlightening day, we hoped back on our bus, ready to get back home. But the tour had one more destination for us. Our bus pulled up to a building and ushered us inside. We poured into a large room where we were greeted by an enthusiastic woman. She broke into an emphatic greeting, informing us that we were in a Korean Ginseng factory.

“Hi and welcome! We are here to tell you today about ginseng! Now ginseng is very special. The long roots grow like a person, and many times people ask me for the sexy ginseng. I laugh and say all ginseng is sexy! Now, there are many uses for ginseng, for men it gives more stamina, energy, and makes much more husband! For women, it makes you less tired. Ginseng also improves memory, digestion, and prevents cancer! Anything you need, ginseng can help!”

We exchanged amused glances and wondered what we were doing here, of all places. The ginseng tour and experience quickly developed into a joke among friends for the duration of the trip. We purchased some cheap ginseng candies at the airport and it became common to hear: “Feeling tired? Pop a ginseng!” But was this merely a creative manifestation of our minds? Were these jelly candies really providing any real tangible health benefit?

Panacea? Or Placebo?

Ginseng has often been referred to as a general panacea for its ability to promote healing for almost every type of ailment. Ginseng is an adaptogenic herb meaning that it has the unique ability to balance and tone multiple physiological functions at once which can provide more efficient and effective healing. It’s claimed uses/functions range from helping to significantly increase energy and stamina, restore libido, sharpen memory and concentration skills, strengthen the digestive tract, balance the endocrine system, protect the body from toxins and radiation, and play a role in the prevention cancer.

How can one plant possibly deliver benefit to such a vast range of ailments? It is hard to believe, but science seems to back some of these audacious claims.. at least to an extent. Want proof? See below:

The most publicized benefit of ginseng is its energy boosting ability. For years, it’s been used in energy drinks, supplements, herbal teas, and more. A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found the root was successful in relieving cancer patients of extreme fatigue. The scientific community is still somewhat divided on the energy boosting qualities, yet the strong social proof is hard to ignore.

This root has been linked to the prevention and treatment of diabetes by reducing the body’s insulin response. Korean red ginseng could be a highly beneficial supplement for Type II diabetics by reinforcing insulin and glucose regulation.

Role in Korean Tourism

Okay. So maybe there is truth to substantiate the claims… why did we end up there? It turns out, a stop at the ginseng factory is an incredibly common component of various Korean sightseeing tours. Not surprising due to the fact that South Korea distributes the largest amount of ginseng in the world. As of 2009, its annual production was 27,480 tons, the second largest in the world. Its domestic distribution size is approximately $649 million in terms of the amount based on pure ginseng root and approximately, $1,140 million if including processed products. Red ginseng, the most attractive product of the South Korea ginseng markets, increased in production by 35% from 2008 to 2012, and the consumption is continuously rising every year.  It seems the Koreans had in fact stumbled upon something some 1,000 years ago and managed to turn ginseng into a huge source of tourism and commerce.

Looking Forward

If you haven’t heard, wellness is the “new black”, and currently represents a status symbol among consumers who prioritize maintaining their well-balanced physical and mental health. In 2016, analysts reported that the global wellness economy reached $3.7 trillion and growth is expected to accelerate by 17% in the next five years. The global ginseng market is segmented into several categories that fall within this wellness spectrum, including: personal care, dietary supplements, food, and pharmaceutical. Among these, dietary supplements is the leading application segment in terms of revenues. The global dietary supplements market was valued at over US$ 123 billion in 2015, and is expected to increase at 7.4% CAGR through 2025. Demand for ginseng from the dietary supplements sector is projected to remain strong throughout the forecast period 2016-2026, and support growing global demand. Additionally, increasing usage of ginseng in pharmaceutical products to mitigate the risk of various diseases, such as heart disease, fatigue, and high blood pressure, will fuel growth of the ginseng market. Korea, with is rising production and distribution, is well positioned to capitalize on these positive projections and continue to rely on ginseng as a pillar of commerce.