Antioxidants In Japan: An Update
Reviewing activity on the antioxidant front.
By Ron Bailey
In contrast with the timing of the previous reports on antioxidants in Japan, this year the Japanese economy finally seems to have emerged from several very troubled years. Once it is confirmed that the economy is indeed stable, then it can be expected that the generally conservative food and beverage companies in Japan will increase their spending on research and development of new ingredients and new products, including ingredients with demonstrated antioxidant properties.
Due to the on-going food safety issues that have impacted the Japanese food and beverage industry, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) have been asked to focus their primary attention on food hygiene and safety concerns. As a result, there have been very few regulatory initiatives directed specifically at the functional food and nutraceuticals markets in Japan, and no major initiatives are expected for the start of the next fiscal year, which begins on April 1st.
Last year at this time, most antioxidant news centered around the growth of CoQ10 as a result of the MHLW approval of it for food and dietary supplement use at the end of March 2001. That growth is continuing, however, it is concentrated not on the antioxidant properties but on other health-related benefits (heart health primarily), which is consistent with the extensive drug history of CoQ10 in Japan.
The FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Uses) regulatory category still does not believe an antioxidant claim to be a health-related claim worthy of consideration, even though some of the FOSHU functional ingredients are known to have antioxidant properties. This is not likely to change, at least not in the near future.
Consumer and Industry Perceptions
Consumers in Japan are well aware of the term antioxidant (“kosanka” in Japanese), but the government has consistently discouraged use of the term in food labeling. The food industry in Japan, therefore, typically does not focus on the antioxidant properties of food ingredients or food products, but rather continues to use antioxidant data as a sort of crude biomarker, as an indication that the ingredient is likely to have other health-related benefits of interest.
For example, Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin in its December 2003 issue indicated that the market for green tea catechins is now estimated to be worth ¥5 billion (about $50 million), up from ¥3 billion three years ago. Although most Japanese know that the polyphenols and catechins in green tea have antioxidant properties, a typical positioning for the popular health teas (kenkocha) includes such non-antioxidant claims as “…suitable for people beginning to be concerned about body fat,” which is the approved claim for the Kao Corporation’s FOSHU Healthya green and oolong tea soft drinks.
Nutraceutical and Functional Food Trade Show Activity
A review of the guidebooks from two popular food and health food ingredient shows in Japan this past year provides additional perspective on the antioxidant market in Japan. The examples cited are only for those companies that chose to mention the antioxidant properties of their ingredients in the guidebooks. It is interesting that several of the ingredients are relatively new to the Japanese market, and also that the list does not include many of the more established ingredients, such green tea extracts and plant polyphenols. Those ingredients were being exhibited, but with market positioning beyond the general antioxidant claims.
ifia Japan 2003 (International Ingredients and Additives show). Exhibitors made the following claims for their ingredients at this show held in mid-June 2003 in Tokyo:
• CoQ10 as a powerful antioxidant
• Glutathione-rich yeast extract with antioxidant function
• GABA fermentation product for oxidation inhibitory effect in the human brain
• Stabilized rice bran with antioxidant properties that help ward off “lifestyle diseases”
• Wild Blueberries that are antioxidant rich
• Astaxanthin was referred to as a super antioxidant material in nature
Health Ingredients Japan 2003. Claims from this October Tokyo show included:
• Peruvian Purple Corn Drink (anthocyanins) as the liquid antioxidant
• Black soybean hull extract with antioxidative activity
• Astaxanthin to promote health against free radical damage and oxidative stress
• Pycnogenol whose antioxidation power removed an oxygen radical…
• Olive juice the most potent antioxidant yet discovered
As usual, several of the more aggressive companies claiming antioxidant efficacy were ingredient companies from overseas, not Japanese-based companies. This is consistent with what has been observed in prior years. It is possible that the Japanese companies are reluctant to make antioxidant claims for regulatory reasons, but it is equally possible that their reluctance is based on a lack of interest in antioxidant-only claims for ingredients.
In only one instance was the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) test mentioned, and that was in the context of a claim for a specific anthocyanin compound in a new functional material isolated from black soybean seed coat. Although the Japanese companies are beginning to use the ORAC test more frequently, it is still not commonly used in the food industry, and is definitely unknown to the vast majority of consumers. ORAC has very limited use as a promotional tool so far in Japan, at least by Japanese companies.
Japanese Trade Press Ingredient News
The monthly Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin page on Ingredient News continues to be a useful source of information on new antioxidant ingredients, translated from articles in the Japanese trade press. Examples from recent issues include:
• Pomegranates have a powerful antioxidant effect…
• Raw Coffee Bean Extract antioxidant with chlorogenic acid
• Propolis suppresses damage caused by free radicals in the body
• Flavangenol powerful antioxidant effect has been confirmed
• Cystine Peptide from whey protein is a component of glutathione, a natural antioxidant in the body.
The focus of much of the food industry research in Japan is on growing health problems, such as diabetes and allergies. The incidence of diabetes is increasing in Japan, as is the incidence of pre-diabetes, and the trade show guidebooks and publication cited in this column mention many ingredients that are targeted toward those areas of health concern. The pre-diabetes metabolic syndrome conditions are a major focus of several new FOSHU products designed to control blood pressure, blood lipids and blood glucose. Antioxidant efficacy, while important, is simply not widely seen to be an ingredient functionality of interest to consumers, even if on-label antioxidant claims were allowed by MHLW. This is not likely to change without first having a change in guidance from MHLW indicating that antioxidant claims are both meaningful and acceptable.NW
Note: Important sources of information for this report are the Japanscan Food Industry Bulletin published in the U.K., and the ifia Japan 2003 and Health Ingredients Japan 2003 trade show guidebooks.