Japan Insider: Herbs & Botanicals in Japan

By Ron Bailey | July 1, 2006

Herbs and botanicals continue to be popular in Japan.

Herbs & Botanicals in Japan

Herbs and botanicals continue to be popular in Japan.

By Ron Bailey

At the ifia Japan 2006 international food ingredients and additives show held late May/early June in Tokyo, a number of exhibitors, attendees, and other interested parties were asked about the estimated size of the herbs and botanicals market in Japan. Somewhat surprisingly, every person contacted confirmed that the market is growing, but with one exception, none of the people asked were comfortable estimating the actual Japanese market size for herbs and botanicals.

If the dictionary definitions of the two terms are used to explain the categories, it is clear why an accurate sales figure is so difficult to generate. From Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the definitions include:

Herb: a plant or plant part valued for its savory or medicinal qualities

Botanical: of or referring to plants or botany; derived from plants

Using these broad definitions, for example, the inclusion of ready-to-drink green tea beverages alone would add nearly $3 billion dollars annually to the market size. So, rather than trying to define and estimate a reasonably accurate market size for herbs and botanicals, it may be more productive to simply conclude that the market is strong and growing stronger. This growth reflects the increasing interest on the part of Japanese consumers in maintaining health and wellness from the consumption of natural foods and beverages.

ifia Japan 2006 food ingredients and additives Show Exhibitors

This annual trade show in Tokyo is an excellent venue for obtaining information on evidence-based food ingredients from a range Japanese and overseas companies. By attending on a regular basis, it is possible to spot early trends and new areas of focus, particularly from the large Japanese companies. Interesting examples from the May show include:

Astaxanthin: This algae-derived ingredient was widely exhibited at the show, with essentially global production from Japanese, Israeli, Chinese, Swedish and U.S. sources. The exhibitors are shifting from the original generic antioxidant market positioning (which cannot be used as on-label claims in Japan), to a focus on anti-fatigue, post-exercise recovery and endurance training support. Television commercials can be seen in Japan demonstrating the use of astaxanthin concentrates added to bottled water for use during exercise. It is not clear if the entry of a potential major new player in the market, Yamaha Motors, is partly responsible. It is possible that the interest in a future new FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use) anti-fatigue, anti-stress category is also a factor. What is clear, however, is that the interest in astaxanthin for human health is finally increasing in Japan after several years of modest activity focused more on the fish feed market rather than human consumption.

Green Tea Extract: Taiyo Kagaku was again exhibiting its “Sunphenon” poly-phenol-rich green tea extract, this year with a focus on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) test results for the ingredient. Taiyo indicated that it is allowed to claim the ORAC results in literature and on product labels, but not to relate the ORAC value to antioxidant efficacy. This is similar to the approach used in labeling the cocoa polyphenol content of chocolate and cocoa products. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare does not allow on-label associations with antioxidants and health benefits. This is one reason the use of the ORAC test has not yet been popular in Japan.

Soy Glycoside: Fujicco was exhibiting its cyandin-3-glucoside chloride from processed soybeans as an ingredient targeting directly Metabolic Syndrome risk factors, rather than focusing on the specific individual risk factors such as cholesterol and blood glucose control. Fujicco is considered a pioneer in the soy iso-flavone concentrate market in Japan, and its credibility will be helpful in communicating the metabolic syndrome and pre-diabetes concepts to Japanese marketers.

Cassis (blackcurrant) Polyphenol: Meiji Food Materia (the food ingredients division of Meiji Seika) was showcasing its cassis polyphenol concentrate with literature claiming the ingredient has “potent antioxidizing activity and heals eyestrain resulting from computer operations….” Meiji has introduced a cassis drink in the popular 100 ml aluminum “bottle can” targeted at young women, and was featuring the product at the show along with the ingredient. Cassis is quite popular at the present time in Japan, along with other anthocyanin-rich fruits and berries, such as bilberries and blueberries.

Seaweed and Plant Peptides: In the Japan portion of this issue’s International Markets Report (page 62), there is a list of recent new “active” ingredients used in approved FOSHU products. Three FOSHU peptide actives (wakame and nori seaweed peptides and sesame peptides), all claiming blood pressure control, were featured at the show. The original FOSHU peptides for blood pressure control tended to be fish-based, from bonito and sardines for example, rather than plant-based.

Black Soybean Hull Extract: At least two companies were exhibiting extracts based on black soybean hull, positioned for eye health because of anthocyanin content. Black food ingredients are popular in Japan presently, including a new FOSHU black oolong tea polyphenol beverage from Suntory (not exhibited at ifia) with an approved claim for fat suppression and postprandial triglyceride suppression.

Herbs/Botanicals Marketing
Considerations in Japan

In Japan, as indicated previously, the market for herbs and botanicals is continuing to grow. There is some speculation that a major Codex Alimentarius meeting announced for 2007 in Japan is somehow going to result in increased sales opportunities for herbal products, but it is not clear how or if this actually could happen.

One globally active Japanese company owner at ifia indicated that “the U.S. is the toughest market in the world” for Japanese ingredient suppliers. The reason, perhaps not too surprising, is that the “U.S. market is only concerned with price.” This is not a flattering picture of the U.S. marketplace, but it is quite true for many U.S. companies. This reasoning is why one Japanese company exhibiting at ifia Japan positioned its ingredients as having “Japanese Quality, Chinese Price.” This is also a reason that Chinese ingredient companies have been so successful in the U.S. marketplace and are becoming more active in Japan as well, but with less obvious success.

Final Comments

The examples in this summary are necessarily limited to highlight just a few of the interesting recent developments in the Japanese marketplace. New herb and botanical ingredient announcements are regularly reported in the monthly Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin. Another useful trade show in Japan for obtaining reasonable evidence-based information on herbs and botanicals is the annual Health Ingredients Japan show in To-kyo, to be held in the beginning of October this year.

The commercial incentive for Japanese companies to invest the necessary time and funds to develop value-added functional food and nutraceutical ingredients remains strong. The FOSHU market growth in particular, although slowing somewhat in terms of rate of growth in the past two years, remains a major opportunity for Japanese and overseas companies. The complexity of the process for gaining FOSHU approvals is totally consistent with the research and development expectations of responsible Japanese companies, both large and small. NW

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