Special edition: Asia

Japan: Functional foods, fads and food scares

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Functional foods Nutrition

In the first part of this Asia-focused special edition, we look to the innovation hotbed that is Japan. Japan is well known as the world’s functional foods birthplace when Yakult kicked into life there in the 1950s with its little bottles of immune boosting, probiotic drinking yoghurt and is now a global blockbuster brand.

Since then the market has seen a plethora of functional foods come and go – some of them, like probiotic yoghurt, have gained traction globally while others, like collagen marshmallows, have remained niche. A whole lot more have been consigned to the dustbin of functional foods history.

The market is buoyant but has been hit by the economic recession, by the market removal of a blockbuster cholesterol-lowering, healthy oil (Econa) and by a government that has taken a somewhat sceptical stance to the sector especially after the Econa ‘scandal’.

Estimates vary greatly due to the highly experimental, and often fad-like nature of the market, but excluding food supplements, it is estimated to be worth about €20bn which includes FOSHU and non-FOSHU foods – about three times the size of the US market according to Leatherhead Food International.

Japan remains one of the biggest functional foods market in the world along with the collective that is the European Union and North Americaandmany in healthy food industry, or the mainstream industry for that matter, keep a keen eye on Japanese market functional food launches. And there have been many.

Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics noted 3,522 new Japanese foods and non-alcohol drinks that have made a claim that they are ‘high in’ a particular nutrient between 1, 2006 and August 31, 2010.

“If you compare the percentage of new foods and beverages in Japan making a ‘high in’ a particular nutrient claim versus other countries, Japan would not rank at the top of the list but would certainly be toward the top,”​ said Datamonitor’s Tom Vierhile.


In the food sector the market is divided into two areas: FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use) and non-FOSHU. FOSHU foods are those that have won a health claim from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Euromonitor put the FOSHU market at about €6bn in 2007 – more than triple 1999 levels.

However Takishi Kamura from the Japan Health Food & Nutrition Food Association (JHNFA)​ noted in a recent presentation that the FOSHU market had since dropped below €5bn.

In 1991, when the FOSHU system was introduced, there were less than 20. Now there are about 1000, according to Dr Hideko Ikeda from the Japanese Institute for Health Food Standards (JIHFS)​, but noted the rise of consumer groups against FOSHU after the Econa incident that saw the €220m oil removed from market in 2009 due to carcinogenic concerns about glycidol fatty acid esters. It was the biggest selling FOSHU product at the time according to Dr Ikeda.

Non-FOSHU foods usually contain healthy ingredients like green tea extracts, glucosamine, fish oil, CoEnzymeQ10 and prebiotics. They will usually say no more than ‘X is good for your health’ as specific claim making is only permitted for FOSHU foods which have to demonstrate their efficacy very rigorously.

The foods are popular –a survey conducted by the Japan Health Food & Nutrition Food Association (JHFNA) showed 65 per cent of people aged 35-55 are aware of the FOSHU products and 22 per cent of those surveyed report using FOSHU products regularly.


Launches of late include Pepsi Baobab – a cola infused with seed extracts of the African tree. Coca-Cola Japan launched an RTD coffee drink with oligosaccharide while Maruha Nichiro Foods developed Magic Cut Fish Sausage Ca Tokuho in March 2009 that contained 400mg of calcium and targeted older osteoporosis sufferers, according to Euromonitor.

Mintel notes a trend called ‘collagen cuisine’ where retail outlets and even restaurants are promoting collagen-rich foods such as shark’s fin and pig’s trotters and targeting the anti-ageing market. The extracts are finding their way into sweets, drinks and more.

“Consumers are increasingly looking to food to maintain not only their health, but also their beauty and youthfulness,”​ Mintel noted. “Interest has veered between the latest anti-oxidising superfruits, such as blueberries and aronia berries, to the latest vitamin-enriched functional foods such as yogurts and pro-biotic drinks.”

Mintel notes an iron-fortified soft chew from Morinaga that targets women and particularly menstruation.

NutraIngredients is co-hosting with CosmeticsDesign-Europe the Beauty from Within 2010Conference​, to be held in Paris on 11th October​ at the Lutetia Hotel, where such topics will be discussed.

For more information and to register, please click here​ .

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