Japan Insider: Prebiotics & Probiotics in Japan: A Perspective

By Ron Bailey | March 1, 2005

Prebiotics and probiotics are established categories in Japan that are ready for additional growth opportunities.

Prebiotics & Probiotics in Japan: A Perspective

Prebiotics and probiotics are established categories in Japan that are ready for additional growth opportunities.

By Ron Bailey

Japanese consumers are well aware of the value of incorporating probiotic bacteria and prebiotic ingredients in their daily diet, although not necessarily using the terms “prebiotic” and “probiotic” to describe them. The probiotic beverage Yakult was introduced in Japan 70 years ago, and has become a truly global brand focused on promoting the growth of friendly bacteria and decreasing harmful bacteria in the intestinal environment. The prebiotic concept was first commercialized in Japan 20 years ago when fructooligosaccharides were sold as a “bifidus factor” to enhance the growth of friendly bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract.

Demographics Incentive

Gastrointestinal diseases, including stomach cancer, have been in­cluded in the list of leading causes of death in Japan for many years. The age-adjusted death rates from stomach cancer have been in steady decline recently for both men and women, however, possibly related to the decreased consumption of pickled foods, according to some Japanese health experts. Deaths from gastric and duodenal ulcers have also shown similar declines.

Despite these declines, the concern for maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal system remains a major priority, however, and is compounded by the Japanese tendency to over-prescribe antibiotics for a variety of health conditions. Japanese consumers know that they need to replenish the bacterial flora in their gut on a regular basis, and believe that probiotic bacteria are the best solution.

Probiotic Market Activity in Japan

Yogurt: The Japanese market for yogurt products, which is valued at nearly $3 billion, has been growing steadily for more than 20 years. The market leaders include Meiji Dairies, Morinaga Milk Industries and Yakult Honsha. The yogurt market is split into four types in Japan—soft (fruit), solid set, drinking and plain (in order of sales value). The soft (fruit) category has shown the strongest growth during the past six years, nearly doubling in sales value during that time. Morinaga’s popular “aloe vera” yogurt with pieces of crunchy aloe vera leaf is a leader in the soft (fruit) category.

Lactic Acid Bacteria Cultured Beverages: In Japan the market for lactic acid bacteria cultured beverages is also large, about one-fourth of the size of the yogurt market in bulk production volume. This is primarily due to the strong market presence of the Yakult Honsha “Yakult” brand, with reported sales volumes of nearly seven million 65 ml bottles per day in 2003 in Japan alone.

FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Uses) Probiotics: Given the long history of safe and efficacious use of probiotic products in Japan, it should come as no surprise that the leading category of FOSHU products is made up of strain-specific (15 different bacteria are now FOSHU functional ingredients) probiotic products with on-label claims for improved gastrointestinal health. The most recent public data from the Japan Health and Nutrition Food Association (JHNFA) as translated into English in the April 2004 issue of the Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin indicates that FOSHU lactic acid bacteria products in all forms had retail sales in 2003 of $3.5 billion, a full 60% of the total FOSHU market. Although FOSHU lactic acid bacteria products sales are continuing to grow, the growth has in fact slowed in recent years due to market saturation. In fact, in 2004 there were only four new FOSHU probiotic products approved out of 84 total FOSHU approvals during the year.

Yakult Honsha has converted nearly its entire line of yogurts and cultured lactic acid bacteria beverages to FOSHU status in recent years. Two popular bifidobacteria yogurts, one from Meiji Dairies and one from Morinaga Milk Industries, had been successfully converted to FOSHU status in 1996 from market leading non-FOSHU brands. All together, these conversions to FOSHU status were responsible for most of the early growth of the FOSHU market in Japan.

Prebiotic Market Activity in Japan

The commercial interest in prebiotics in Japan dates back to the early to mid-1980’s when it became clear that certain functional ingredients could support the growth of “friendly” bacteria in the intestinal tract. The problems associated with keeping the probiotic bacteria alive as they passed through the acid environment of the stomach could therefore be avoided, not to mention the stability problems associated with processing, storage and shelf life.

Meiji Seika’s fructooligosaccharide and Calpis’ soybean oligosaccharide were early commercial pioneers in this field. One of the early FOSHU product approvals (October 1993) was the Calpis “Oligo CC” drink with soybean oligosaccharide as the functional ingredient, with a claim that “this product is suitable for those who are concerned about their GI condition, as it increases intestinal bifidobacteria and thus helps maintain a good intestinal environment.”

FOSHU Prebiotics

Many prebiotic ingredients have been commercialized in Japan in recent years, several in the FOSHU category. In the formal JHNFA 2003 summary, there were 70 FOSHU gut regulation products containing dietary fiber as the functional ingredient, and another 61 products (of 398 total at the end of 2003) using an oligosaccharide to support a gut health claim. Prebiotic fiber functional ingredients include the very popular indigestible dextrin, as well as psyllium seed husk, polydextrose, partially hydrolyzed guar gum, wheat bran, rafinose, beer yeast fiber, low molecular weight sodium alginate and agar derived fiber. The oligosaccharide list is almost as long, with fructo-, galacto-, and isomalto- oligosaccharides as well as lactosucrose and lactulose, and most recently, a coffee bean manno-oligosaccharide in instant coffee and coffee premixes from Ajinomoto General Foods. All of the fiber and oligosaccharide products are allowed on-label health claims such as “…suitable for improving the regulation and control of the intestines” or “…improves bowel movement,” or something equivalent.

Non-FOSHU Prebiotics

It is very common in Japan at trade shows to see non-FOSHU ingredients positioned for their prebiotic activity. It is fair to assume that all commercial Japanese fiber sources are being or have been tested for prebiotic activity, especially given its importance in the Japanese marketplace. Imported fiber sources, such as the “Hi-Maize” resistant starch from National Starch (and sold in Japan by NSC Japan), are also allowed (and do make) prebiotic claims in its promotional literature.

New Product Concepts for the Future

Japanese companies are concerned about the slowdown of FOSHU and non-FOSHU probiotics, particularly as the market becomes more saturated. At the same time, new opportunities are being investigated for their market potential, such as “soy yogurt” and active kefir-type products. New packaging concepts are also being developed, which are consistent with an emerging young Japanese consumer interest in on-the-go eating experiences. Furthermore, companies are working on new delivery systems, such as encapsulation systems to protect probiotic bacteria as they journey through the GI tract. Lastly, new health claims supported by clinical evidence are being developed with the intention of convincing the conservative Ministry of Health to expand the permitted on-label FOSHU health claims in the future.

A major incentive for development of new and improved prebiotic ingredients not related to gastrointestinal health revolves around the growing concern for diabetes and obesity and the role of dietary fiber related to insulin sensitivity and glucose response. In fact, blood sugar control is one of the fastest-growing FOSHU categories, and indigestible dextrin dietary fiber is a major functional ingredient in that category, as well as the gastrointestinal health category of products.NW


Note: Important sources of information for this article are the Japan Health Food and Nutrition Food Association, the Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin published in the U.K., and the “Statistical Abstracts of Health and Welfare in Japan 2003” from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in Japan.

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