Japan Insider: Herbs And Botanicals In Japan

By Ron Bailey | July 1, 2001

An update on recent activity.

Herbs And Botanicals In Japan

An update on recent activity.

By Ron Bailey

This past year has seen a lot of activity in the herbs and botanicals market in Japan, for a variety of reasons. Last year at this time the regulatory situation was unsettled, poised for potentially stricter regulations that would have stopped much of the expected growth in the marketplace. The economic situation in Japan was also in turmoil, with little prospects for an early turnaround from the recession conditions of the past several quarters. The picture this year is at least somewhat clearer and the future somewhat brighter, given recent changes impacting the market.

The long-awaited new regulations were issued April 1 of this year, the start of the new fiscal year in Japan. Although the new regulations allow for only limited market-opening measures, the good news is that the zealous bureaucrats in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare who wanted stricter regulation of the herb and botanical markets did not get their way. The new regulations allow Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) to be in tablet and capsule form for the first time and allow on-label health claims to be made for those products with proven clinical effectiveness. It will be interesting to see which companies decide to take ad­vantage of this change, since on the surface at least it is likely that the pharmaceutical companies may choose to become more involved.

At the same time, the government incentive for encouraging Japanese citizens to take more control of their health is increasing. The English-language Nikkei Weekly newspaper recently reported that now 23% of the Japanese population are over 60 years of age and forecast that by the year 2050 over 40% of the population will be over 60. The number of children in Japan has declined to a post-war low, with only 14% of the population under 15 years of age, down from nearly 40% back in 1935. The health care implications of these population shifts are profound, with increasing pressures on the entire health care system as the population ages.

Health Issues Driving The Herb/Botanical Market

There are many examples of health conditions that are related to consumer behavior, including poor diet and lack of exercise, which are problems in Japan:

Obesity and Diabetes—The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has reported that over 30% of men in the relatively young 40-49 age group and 30% of wo­men in the 60-69 age group are obese by Japanese standards (much lower than U.S. figures but still a major cause for concern in Japan). There are also seven million diabetics in Japan, many with weight problems.

As reported in the May issue of Nutraceuticals World in a column on diabetes in Japan, the use of herbs and botanicals for weight loss is very popular. Some of the ingredients (Gymnema syl­vestre, Salacia oblonga, for example) have been taken from the Ayurvedic experiences of India and Sri Lanka. Others (Garcinia cambogia and several Chinese herbs) are positioned as “diet” products in Japan, often in tea form. Finding human clinical weight loss information on the products and ingredients has been difficult, however, with most products tending to rely on the long history of use for the intended purpose outside of Japan.

Blood Lipids—The Ministry also reported that 60% of men aged 40-49 and over 60% of women aged 50-69 have an “excess of fat in blood,” again according to Japanese guidelines. It was noted in the brief article in the Nikkei Weekly that “most men are unaware of the health risks from eating fatty foods (with) only 20% of men aware of such dangers,” which is somewhat surprising given the abundance of public information available.

Although soy and rice-sourced components (proteins, peptides, phytosterols, tocotrienols, red yeast rice, etc. ) are commonly used for controlling blood lipids in Japan, several with formal Ministry-approved FOSHU status, there is less use of traditional herbs and botanicals for such purposes. Low molecular weight sodium alginate from seaweed and green tea catechins are two popular exceptions, although green tea catechins are usually positioned for anti-cavity and even anti-cancer purposes in Japan rather than cholesterol control.

Blood Pressure—In the case of both men and women, the incidence of high blood pressure increases with age, with 70% of men and women over 70 years of age suffering from high blood pressure according to the Ministry.

Many of the non-drug treatments for high blood pressure in Japan use peptides derived from fish and milk proteins, including several formal FOSHU products “suitable for people with mild hypertension.” One FOSHU herbal exception is Eucommia ulmoides (“tochucha” in Japanese) from China, which is used in two FOSHU drink products. Hawthorn berry extracts are also sold for a similar purpose, although they are less popular so far.

The commercial implications for the herb and botanicals markets in just these selected areas are significant. In each case, of course, prescription drugs are available to treat the condition and the use of such prescription drugs is growing. At the same time, however, the interest in alternative natural non-drug ap­proaches to alleviating the health conditions is increasing. Other examples taken from the guidebook for the May ifia 2001 food ingredients and additives show in Tokyo include: Lycopene from tomatoes for anti-oxidant properties, with anti-cancer implications; fenugreek gum for blood sugar control for diabetes; guava leaf polyphenols for blood sugar control; astaxanthin from freshwater algae for antioxidant properties; kombu seaweed and sesame extract as concentrated mineral sources; stevia and licorice extracts for high intensity sweetener applications; cranberry ex­tract for urinary tract infections and ginkgo biloba extract for improved blood circulation and mild dementia.

Another area of increasing concern in Japan is allergies and “hay fever,” often related to the spring Japanese cedar pol­len season. Herbs and botanicals commonly used to alleviate the symptoms include stinging nettles (Urtica dioca) extracts and perilla seed and leaf extracts

Immune function enhancement is also an increasing area of concern in Japan as well and there is recent interest in non-drug treatments in this area. Popular herbs and botanicals used (beyond the more traditional use of various mushrooms in food and drug extract form) include: Echinacea purpurea and E. angustifolia extracts Arabinogalactan from Larix occidentalis.

Opportunities For The Future

It has been claimed that the future for safe and effective herbs and botanicals for the non-drug prevention and treatment of disease conditions in Japan is very bright. Nothing that happened in Japan in the last year suggests that this is not the case. With the opening of the FOSHU market to tablet and capsule forms, it would seem that well-placed companies with an interest in marketing supplement products with proven health claims will have an even greater opportunity in Japan. The market is open to overseas company involvement, as well as joint ventures between Japanese companies and overseas suppliers, depending on which approach is preferred. As long as the Japanese government remains supportive with a business and consumer-friendly regulatory system, the market for herbs and botanicals in Japan will continue to growNW

Related Health Conditions:

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