By Paola Marisela González
Functional food in Japan, alongside functional beverages, have become very popular and are easily accessible across supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies. Japan has long been considered as a country providing healthy food innovations, including the development of regulations for manufacturing and branding such products.
Here we take a look at the main categories within the functional food and drink space in the Japanese market, highlighting some of the key health concerns that are addressed.
Why Does Functional Food in Japan Perform So Well?
The term ‘Functional Foods’ was first developed in Japan to refer to foods with added ingredients that claim to provide extra health benefits beyond the nutritional value included in ordinary food itself. Functional food includes additional nutrients such as vitamins, fibre, protein, minerals and other components with a functional purpose. Japanese people recognize the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle, which includes good fundamental dietary habits.
Products that promote health and wellness are especially important in Japan as the population of citizens aged 65 years and over is expected to make up 30% of the total population by 2025. The beauty and wellbeing benefits of functional food and drink in Japan are also behind the growing popularity of these products. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in food and beverages that are less processed and have more natural and organic ingredients, as well as being environmentally friendly.
Shipment value of functional food in Japan boomed between 2015 and 2019, seeing a 434% increase from 44.6 billion JPY to 238.2 billion JPY.
The Japanese diet is considered to be balanced, fresh and packed with nutrition, however, with many living a fast paced lifestyle it is necessary to have ready-to-eat healthy food with added vitamins, dietary supplements, or disease-preventing ingredients. By 2018, the market for functional food in Japan was the third largest in the world, after the market bloomed due to the introduction of the labelling category of ‘Foods with Function Claims’ (FFC) by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) in 2015.
Regulations for Health and Functional Foods in Japan
According to the Consumer Affairs Agency in Japan (CCA), Food with Health Claims (FHC) is a category further separated into three sub-categories: Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU), Food with Nutrient Function Claims (FNFC), and Food with Function Claims (FFC). The term Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) was introduced in 1991 by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) to regulate functional food in Japan and to validate its commercialization.
Products classified as FOSHU need to meet rigorous standards to be eligible for this classification which requires an assessment by the CAA and approval from MHLW. Ten years later, in 2001, the term Foods with Nutrient Function Claims (FNFC) was established. This term refers to products that have added vitamins and minerals that correspond to the 12 vitamins and 5 minerals assigned for this category. These products can be manufactured and distributed without any special permission, just by describing the effect the added ingredient has on the human body.
Another category is the Foods with Function Claims (FFC) which was introduced in 2015. This allows companies to display the health benefits of the food on the packaging, as long as the benefits are based on scientific evidence. The difference between the FOSHU and the FFC registration is that for the FOSHU, a sample of the product first needs to be examined and approved by the CAA.
On the other hand, for the FFC, the companies are responsible for studying the safety and effectiveness of their products, and they need to submit this information to the CAA, making the registration process faster and more affordable. The simplification of the new food and drink registration process within the FFC category has, in turn, facilitated the rise of companies and products within the functional food market in Japan.
Health Benefits of Foods with Function Claims (FFC) in Japan
Health claims around improving the GI tract are most common when it comes to functional food in Japan. The products that offer these benefits regularly incorporate probiotic lactobacilli, oligosaccharide, and dietary fibre, which are mostly found in yoghurts and yoghurt-like fermented milk goods. The second most popular claim is triglyceride reduction, followed by cholesterol reduction. Other products that have become very successful in the Japanese market are those related to controlling high blood pressure, reducing blood sugar levels, improving oral care, and boosting mineral intake, including improving calcium absorption.
Most of the active components used in FOSHU products are also used in FFC. Nonetheless, the latest ones include additional health claims related to fatigue, eye condition, memory, stress, sleep, joints, muscles, and body mass index. One common ingredient found in functional foods for combatting fatigue and stress is theanine, which is extracted from green tea.
For the eyes, lutein is regularly added to FFC for its antioxidant effects that help to protect the retina from phototoxic light damage. To improve memory, ginkgo biloba has been used for its beneficial properties, such as reducing neuronal damage and cognitive decline. Joint function is another area that can be enhanced through the consumption of functional food in Japan. This is especially important because of the prolonged life expectancy of Japanese people. Taking this into consideration, collagen hydrolysate and glucosamine are commonly included.
Latest Trends in Japan’s Functional Food Sector
People across the generations turn to functional food in Japan to satisfy different needs according to their personal lifestyles. For the ageing population, the most attractive products are those that can help maintain overall health, promote a good night’s sleep and prevent deterioration of joints, bones and muscles that could reduce mobility.
Products targeting people in their 40’s and 50’s tend to be focused on weight control and boosting metabolism. In addition, market research has shown that there are differences in the kind of health benefits that male and female consumers look for. On the one hand, men usually prefer food or beverages that can help them recover from fatigue, prevent hypertension and maintain general good health. Meanwhile, women tend to look for more beauty-oriented options, such as products that are good for skincare, that provide nutritional support, and that are anti-flatulent.
The latest trends in functional food in Japan are products that include gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), indigestible dextrin, and omega-3. GABA helps to relieve anxiety, reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and decrease body fat, among other benefits. Indigestible dextrin is a supplement of dietary fibre, and omega-3 has several health claims. Among the main benefits of omega-3 are that it helps to prevent major cardiovascular events, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes, clearing blocked arteries, lowering triglyceride levels as well as sustaining healthy blood pressure.
Remarkable Functional Drinks in Japan
As well as e-commerce platforms like Rakuten, supermarkets and convenience stores are the largest outlets for health-related foods in Japan. The major food and beverage manufacturers are releasing more products with health benefits in response to the more active interest in health and wellness from consumers. For example, Suntory Holdings created Iyemon Tokucha, a FOSHU tea containing quercetin glucoside, which helps break down stored body fat.
Another product with similar benefits is Karada Calpis, manufactured by Japan’s second most prominent beverage producer Asahi. Karada Calpis uses lactic acid bacteria to reduce levels of body fat. An innovative product released by Taisho Pharmaceutical Holdings is a drink called Raizin, a caffeine-free energy drink with added vitamin B2 and B6, ginkgo biloba extract, deproteinized royal jelly, amino acids, and enXtra which helps to improve alertness and focus.
The Coca Cola Company has also entered the FOSHU business in Japan with drinks such as Karada Sukoyakacha, a blended tea with indigestible dextrin that suppresses fat and sugar absorption. Another Coca-Cola product with indigestible dextrin is Coca-Cola Plus which contains zero calories and is a source of dietary fibre.
Thinking Ahead: What Does the Future Look Like for Functional Food in Japan?
Functional food and drinks provide Japanese consumers with alternative ways to maintain a balanced intake of nutrients and lead a healthy lifestyle. New products are released on a regular basis to keep up with demands around more accessible health and wellbeing options. This is one aspect of the food and drink market in Japan that is very likely to see continued growth over the coming years. As with any other category, understanding local nuance will be crucial for any brand considering releasing a functional food product on the Japanese market.
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