Japan Insider: Green Foods In Japan
The market for “foods that are green” has great potential.
By Ron Bailey
It is very likely that a Japanese consumer would respond quite differently to a request for a list of green foods than a typical nutraceutical user in the West. The Japanese traditional diet is rich in a variety of healthy sea vegetables, such as nori (dried laver) and kombu (sea kelp), for example, which are common in various prepared foods. Healthy green tea (ryokucha) is clearly a green colored food and probably would be included on a Japanese list of green foods, even though it is usually consumed in beverage form. Ready-to-drink (RTD) green tea has become a huge market in Japan in the past few years, with retail sales now well over $2 billion per year and growing. It is being increasingly consumed for its potential health benefits.
In the U.S. the definition of green foods is also somewhat informal, but it appears to be generally accepted that the category of green foods would include a range of grasses, seaweeds and algae ingredients. An Internet search for green foods as a broad description of the category confirmed the expected. Promotions included green barley or barley grass, wheat grass, alfalfa, green kamut, green rye, spirulina, chlorella, dunaliella algae and blue-green algae, for example. All of these same ingredients are also known in the functional food industry in Japan.
Health Industry Show 2003 Observations:
There were many companies exhibiting green foods at the Health Industry Show 2003 held at the end of March in Tokyo, Japan, often in finished food form and not just as ingredients for incorporation in foods. Examples included:
•Fucoidan extract from Okinawa Mozuku seaweed
•Nori seaweed peptides to reduce blood pressure
•Ashitaba (Angelica keisei) vegetable with nerve growth factors
•Mulberry leaf for blood sugar control
•Green tea for blood sugar control
•Wheat leaf tea with vitamins and dietary fiber
•Chlorella “rich in minerals”
•Mountain wild grass for blood flow and brain activation
•Aloe vera leaf extracts and powders with organic positioning
•Cabbage and kale juices
Some of the products/ingredients were imported, which is an increasing trend in Japan as a means of controlling prices in a deflationary market. Some included health claims in the Official Guide Book from the show, which another increasing trend. Some of the products already have, or claim to have, applied for Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) designation, which will allow health claims on the product labels as well as in the promotional literature.
It can be expected that many additional imported green food ingredients, such as astaxanthin, spirulina, blue-green algae, barley leaf, etc., will be exhibited at both the ifia 2003 international food ingredients and additives show in mid-June and the Health Ingredients Japan 2003 show in early October—both shows will be held in Tokyo. Most of the ingredients are typically positioned for both dietary supplement and functional food applications.
Tokyo Area Stores Check Observations:
Most of the green food products and ingredients from the Health Industries Show are relatively easy to find in Tokyo area stores, not just in health food stores, but also in drugstores, convenience stores and even large supermarkets. Some interesting food examples include:
Aloe vera leaf food and beverage products are very popular in Japan at the present time, often positioned (off-label) for various aspects of intestinal health and to moisturize the skin. Yogurts with small pieces of “crunchy” aloe vera leaf pulp are commercial successes for major yogurt brands such as Morinaga and Yoplait. Japanese consumers do not typically have problems with such texture “surprises” in their foods.
Kale Juice is now being sold in supermarkets in Tokyo as “straight kale juice” in frozen multi-pouch packs by functional food company Fancl, presumably targeted to people who do not have ready access to one of the small, trendy Fancl health food stores. Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin in its February 2003 issue indicated that Fancl clinical research has shown that the kale juice product suppresses pollen allergy, an important product benefit in Japan.
Seaweeds of all types and in many forms are given significant shelf space even in large supermarkets. Nori seaweed is sold in page-size sheet form for making sushi rolls (maki), in small strips as a main ingredient in some furikake rice “sprinkles” that add flavor to rice and as a wrap for many rice-based snacks. Wakame seaweed is found as an ingredient in many soups, often with health (low calorie, high fiber) positioning. Kombu kelp is valued for its vitamin and iodine content.
“Edamame” green soybeans also have to be considered green foods if product color is the primary consideration, although they are usually sold frozen as whole (with pod) soybeans or more recently as shelled beans for consumption as snacks after boiling. The healthy image of soy has become an important selling point for this traditional food.
FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Use) Green Foods:
The FOSHU category of foods with allowed health claims also has some interesting examples of using green food functional ingredients (or at least a green food base) for health:
Green Tea Drinks have recently been introduced as FOSHU products by a number of companies, including a green tea drink from Kao Corporation enriched with green tea catechins (four times normal) with claims that the product should be consumed “...by people beginning to be concerned about body fat.”
Kale Processed Foods from Toyo Shinyaku have been approved as FOSHU green juices, with indigestible dextrin as the added functional ingredient to help “regulate the intestines.”
“Green Juice with Fiber,” also from Toyo Shinyaku, was approved as FOSHU as a “young leaves of wheat, processed food” with added indigestible dextrin, again to help “regulate the intestines.”
There have also been several approved FOSHU products that cannot be considered “green foods,” but rather have used functional ingredients extracted from green food seaweeds as the basis for health claims. Low molecular weight sodium alginate for cholesterol reduction is in this category, as is agar dietary fiber for intestinal health.
Even though there is no recognized category of foods in Japan that are considered green foods, it is clear that Japanese consumers are very much interested in consuming “foods that are green” beyond the obvious green fruits and vegetables. The typical Japanese consumer is quite adventurous regarding new tastes and is certainly willing to sample such products based on personal trade show observations. Green foods are a more normal part of a healthy Japanese diet, and as a result are often used to help provide credibility for claimed and implied health benefits even when additional functional ingredients are included.
It can be expected that additional imported green foods and green food ingredients can be successfully marketed in Japan, particularly those with proven health benefits and other important attributes such as organic sourcing.NW
Note: Important sources of information for this article were Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin published in the U.K., and the Tokyo Health Industries Show 2003 guide book.