Writing this week from Seoul, South Korea, where I’ve been the guest of the Korea National Food Cluster known as Foodpolis, the government-sponsored food industrial complex being built east of Iksan. My visit to South Korea actually began with a conversation with Dr. Won Song at Michigan State University about what I might expect, especially since I’d never been to Korea before. Professor Song has returned to Korea on a number of occasions, most recently as a visiting professor for the fall 2009-2010 school year at Seoul National University. She’s also held other posts in Korea, in industry and at universities, before joining MSU’s respected Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. First Dr. Song said I should have no fear about food safety in Korea. She basically said that I should partake of the advantage of eating authentic Korea food, and, believe me, I did. Second, she told me to be on the lookout for examples of a Korean perspective about food being medicine and medicine being food. I was not exactly clear on what she was talking about until I was meeting with some of the food safety research and development executives at the Sempio food manufacturer. I was getting a lesson in fermented soybeans to make the flavoring known as “Jang.” The uses of this “taste of Korea” are many, but here they were talking about evidence that, if fruits and vegetables are made more pleasant to eat, people will eat more of them and “Jang,” substituted for sodium-based flavorings. They said it had to do with “food and medicine and medicine as food.” I first wondered if Dr. Song had called ahead, but then I realized they were addressing a mindset that is very much embraced by Koreans. Eating the right food means you will be taking fewer medicines. It is all connected in a culture that has a history of mixing alternative therapy and traditional herbal medicine. There seems to be a lot to this. Koreans, I am learning, are very picky about their food and careful about what they consume. When there is a problem with food, they want to know all they can about it. That’s why, as it turned out, I received this invitation to visit South Korea. Korean newspapers know that their readers want to know what’s going on during any incident that might impact their food or their health. As a result, several have taken to citing reporting done by Food Safety News. So we ended up on the radar screen when South Korea decided to extend this invitation to come visit. We’ve learned a number of things during this short visit. Among them are how food safety is shaping market opportunities and how trust is shaping trade. More on all of this will be coming in the week ahead in our news columns. I do want to use this forum to thank Kris Yoon and Wendy Yoo from Communications Korea and JD Kim at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs for being my tour guides all week. I literally would have been lost without each of them. With their help, I was able to cover a lot of ground fast. With 10 million people and the fourth-richest metropolitan economy in the world (after New York City, Los Angeles, and Tokyo), Seoul is one those places that just leaves one on sensory overload. It would take some serious tourist time to take it all in. I think I will probably come back and do that someday soon. But this time, it’s been all work, and we’ll be sharing what we learned very shortly.

  • Tabia

    This is a great article to me on several levels, One, that an American and an official, can accept a cultural wisdom from those outside their own culture. Another reason is that, while perhaps unknown to you, this understanding is soooo old that it is “tipping” back into society today from the bottom up. It is said that the father of western medicine said it; however I have come to understand the teacher of this person, the genius from Kemit, said it frequently…Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food. When foods are processed in a way to maintain their value and grown in nutrient rich soil in a process that uses ecological means to reduce pests, this can indeed be and remain a constant truth. Continue your journey
    Healthy Living-Raw

  • overseaschinese

    This food culture is not limited to Korea but also Japan, China, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore etc. It’s an Asian-thing.

    Most Korean food (raw materials) is imported from China, so do food in Malaysia, Singapore, etc.

    • John Mark Carter

      Right. For example, the ayurvedic system treats food as medicine.

  • Dave

    A very interesting topic, and one it would be great to expand upon. For instance, do the “medicine as food and food as medicine” functions change for individuals as they age, suffer from illnesses and infections, or genetic conditions? Thanks for your perspective!

  • Glad to be a vegetarian

    Fascinating! I am looking forward to reading more about this. I agree with their philosophy. What a contrast to the unhealthy and overconsumptive way most Americans eat…

  • Excellent writing. I’m also looking forward to reading more from your trip.

  • Paul

    Food as medicine certainly a great mindset. Something I am recently trying to learn and pay more attention to. I look forward to reading more…

  • Dr. Rob Stuart

    Korea spends 15.3% of Annual Income on food, while here in U.S. we spend 6.8%. A good thought would be to double the cost for all U.S. foods and pay the farming community a respectable income. Who in the U.S. is clamoring to be a farmer?