The concept of functional foods began in Japan in the late 1980s and has flourished ever since, becoming a concept of great interest around the world. There are no published figures on the market size, only estimates from various sources. However, the current consensus is that the market in Japan is worth around US $1.5 billion. There are several reasons for this success in Japan, but effective consumer education has to be one of the most important. For any new market to be created there must be good timing, the product must fulfill a perceived need in the mind of the consumer. In the case of Japan, the government helped to create demand for functional foods. Concerned with the deficiencies of fiber, calcium and iron and the excess of sodium in the national diet and with an increase in the diseases associated with aging – including factors contributing to cardiac disease such as arteriosclerosis and hypertension, diabetes and cancer, the government has a long-running campaign to educate the population in healthy eating. The Japanese government sees functional foods as one way to improve the national diet.

Consumer education

The government campaign to educate consumers on healthy eating and the need for increased calcium, iron and fiber in the diet is one factor. However, the most effective source of consumer information is the media (television, radio and the plethora of magazines in Japan). The power of the media to create demand for functional foods has been demonstrated several times. A recent example is publicity given to the so-called French paradox. This is the theory that the French diet is high in animal fats and low in fiber, but the high incidence of arteriosclerosis and cardiac disease which would be expected to result from such a diet is absent. This is attributed to the fact that the French also consume large quantities of red wine rich in natural antioxidant polyphenols which prevent arteriosclerosis and hypertension. Soon after this theory received media attention in Japan there was a rapid increase in demand for red wine. Food manufacturers immediately saw an opportunity and within months new products were launched containing added red wine polyphenols.

The trade association for the chocolate industry quickly obtained valuable publicity for the fact that chocolate also contains these same natural polyphenols; the top chocolate manufacturers all launched new products rich in natural polyphenols and boosted the market. This has been a very welcome event during the economic recession. Sales of bar chocolate confectionery (100% chocolate content) were up over 20% in the first half of this year; it is mostly this type of chocolate that has been launched with the high polyphenol content. The manufacturers devised special processing techniques to ensure that the cocoa used had a naturally high polyphenol content (2.5 to 3 times higher than regular chocolate). The other types of chocolate confectionery which did not have the added polyphenols did not enjoy the same levels of growth.

Government approval

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By GlobalData

Japan was the first country to introduce an approval system enabling health claims to be made on specified functional products. Health claims may not be made on food and beverages without approval. The approval system, known in English as the FOSHU system (food for specified health use), was established in 1991. Around 167 products have since received approval. This approval was originally for a limited period; the approval has now lapsed on several products so the actual number of current approvals is less than this. (The system has now been changed so that the period of approval is no longer limited.) In order to obtain approval the applicant must prove that the health claim is valid. This is a lengthy and costly process which has restricted the number of companies willing to participate (only around 10-15% of all functional foods and drinks on the market have FOSHU approval). The government has therefore amended the approval system to encourage more applications. This does not mean that approval will be granted without due consideration. Some consumer groups are sceptical about the quality of proof required to obtain FOSHU approval; companies that have applied for approval have found that it is not readily obtained. In practice, most of the approved claims are modest and are often accompanied by a caution that consumption of the food will not cure disease.

The approved claims include the following. Oligosaccharides promote the growth of bifidus bacteria in the intestines and keep the intestines in good condition, lactic acid bacteria improve the environment in the intestines, dietary fiber regulates the intestines, dietary fiber moderates sugars absorption, calcium absorption promoters render calcium highly absorbable, specified peptides and the health tea tochucha improve the diet for people with hypertension, various product inhibit cholesterol uptake, etc. Recent approvals relate to moderation of lipid metabolism.

Approval enables the product to bear the FOSHU approval symbol plus the words ‘Ministry of Health approved food for specified health use’.

Marketing without making claims

As was mentioned earlier, only 10-15% of functional foods and drinks on the market in Japan have FOSHU approval. The majority of products make no claims, apart from a factual statement of the presence of a functional ingredient, for example drawing attention to the fact that the product is fortified with calcium or contains oligosaccharides. Manufacturers can rely on consumer awareness of dietary deficiency and on media coverage of the latest fashion in functional ingredients, which at present is polyphenols. Of course it also helps if the functional food or drink is also very palatable and even better if it is fashionable. The success of some of the hit products is probably related as much to the fashion appeal as to the health appeal. This is true most of all with the near water drinks which have created a new and successful market. These near water drinks have fashion appeal because they are packaged in trendy 500 ml PET bottles. Apart from the attractive appearance and feel of these bottles, they have the advantage over the can in that the screw cap enables them to be reclosed, so that it is not necessary to consume the whole contents at once. The drinks have names which imply health such as Eau+ Conditioning Water and Supli. The drink Supli from Kirin Beverage contains dietary fiber, calcium and other minerals plus vitamins. Eau+ Conditioning Water from Asahi Beverage contains herb extracts and 1,000 mg vitamin C per 500 ml bottle; it is also sugar-free. The marketing of these drinks is aimed at young people to whom fashion is important. These drinks are an acceptable and palatable way of improving the diet.

Main functional ingredients

In terms of the frequency of use of each functional ingredient, the main ingredients are calcium and calcium absorption promoters, dietary fiber, prebiotics (oligosaccharides), probiotics (lactic acid bacteria cultures), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and other polyunsaturated fatty acids, carotene, non-cariogenic sweeteners, iron, collagen, polyphenols, catechins and anthocyanins. Collagen, polyphenols, catechins and anthocyanins are the most recent functional ingredients to become popular. Dietary fiber was the first, closely followed by calcium and oligosaccharides. (See also Table 1.)

Main types of products

The most frequent types of food and drink to contain functional ingredients are soft drinks, milk drinks and lactic acid bacteria drinks, health teas, confectionery and snack foods, yoghurt, ices, instant and cup noodles, breakfast cereals and table-top sweeteners (in descending order).

Balanced nutritional foods and drinks

This market began in 1995 and has continued to grow since then with more products launched each year. This sector flourishes because it suits the modern lifestyle of people with no time to eat breakfast (and perhaps other meals too) and because the packaging, particularly the sporty soft pouch used for the drinks, has fashion appeal. These products are mainly jelly type drinks in the soft pouch pack or a snack bar. Both supply a nutritionally balanced blend of protein, fat and carbohydrate plus vitamins and minerals. Many also contain functional ingredients such as calcium, oligosaccharides, collagen, fiber, polyphenols and beef peptides. They are sold as the ‘ten second breakfast’ or ‘a drink for those busy times when a quick meal is needed’. The product that started this market, Calorie Mate from Otsuka Pharmaceutical, was a big hit with retail sales of around US $390 million. This encouraged several other companies to enter the market, which has continued to expand each year.


The market leaders are some of the top soft drinks companies such as Otsuka Pharmaceutical, Suntory, Kirin Beverage and Asahi Beverage, the top dairy companies Snow Brand Milk Products, Meiji Milk Products and Morinaga Milk Industry, the top lactic acid bacteria drinks companies Yakult Honsha and Calpis, and the top confectionery companies Lotte, Meiji Seika, Morinaga and Ezaki Glico. It is not just Japanese companies that are important, some international companies have success in Japan too. The Kellogg Company obtained FOSHU approval for All-Bran, the Finnish company Valio obtained FOSHU approval for Lactobacillus GG indirectly via the Japanese dairy company Takanashi Nyugyo, Procter & Gambles CCM was the absorption promoter used in the calcium-fortified soft drinks with FOSHU approval from Takara Shuzo and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals hit functional drink Fibe Mini contains polydextrose originally from Pfizer. Coca-Cola and Groupe Danone have also launched functional foods and drinks in Japan.

Trends and future

The changing lifestyle and demographic changes in Japan support increasing demand for functional foods. The increase in the number of single person households and of working wives means there is a growing demand for convenience foods. With no time (or inclination) to prepare fresh vegetables, there is a demand for a convenient source of the fiber, vitamins and minerals supplied by vegetables. Food manufacturers have responded by launching functional foods and drinks which supply the recommended daily intake of vegetables in a palatable and convenient form. There are many different products on the market that supply fiber (both soluble and non-soluble) added to everyday foods, making it easy for consumers to improve the diet without effort.

The increasing proportion of the elderly in the population, more than 22% of the population is over 60, has led to an increase in the diseases of aging. Consequently manufacturers have developed products that contain ingredients which help to prevent or inhibit cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension and circulatory system disorders. The drink Amiiru from Calpis containing lactopeptides to suppress hypertension has become a hit product, as more people become aware of the dangers of high blood pressure.

The latest additions to the list of FOSHU approvals are products to improve lipid metabolism. These are vegetable oils containing diacylglycerol which do not cause a postprandial rise in the level of neutral fats in the blood and are not laid down as fatty tissue in the body. Approval has also been given to these same oils with the addition of beta-sitosterol to suppress absorption of cholesterol and lower levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. FOSHU approval has also been given to a soft drink containing globin digest which suppresses a postprandial rise in serum neutral fats and improves the daily diet of people who consume excess fatty foods. Several other healthy vegetable oils have been launched recently which have a healthy fatty acid balance and also improve the diet.

New functional ingredients will continue to be developed to stimulate the market. The market will thrive provided that new products launched meet changing demands and consumer confidence is not lost because of unreasonable claims. The Japanese approach of informing the consumer via the media to create demand and of government encouragement for the concept of functional foods appears to be part of the reason for success. The unremitting effort of the food and beverage industry to develop and launch a constant stream of new products must also be an important factor.

Table 1. Outline of the Type of Functional Ingredients and their Health Benefits

Functional Ingredient Perceived Health Benefit in Japan
Oligosaccharides (several different types) Promotes growth of bifidus bacteria in intestines
Dietary fiber (polydextrose, wheat bran, indigestible dextrin, psyllium seed coat, partially depolymerised guaran, low molecular weight sodium alginate, etc.) Regulates the intestines
Dietary fiber (chitosan, low molecular weight sodium alginate) Cholesterol control
Dietary fiber (indigestible dextrin) Moderates absorption of sugars
Minerals (calcium, iron, mineral absorption promoters) Compensates for dietary deficiency
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA, EPA, etc.) Activate the brain, prevent cancer, hypertension control, blood cholesterol control, anti-allergy, anti-aging, etc.
Carotene Prevents cancer, eliminates free radicals
Protein (soy protein isolate)

Protein (milk protein)

Cholesterol control

Builds muscle

Peptides (casein dodecapeptide, lacto-peptides, fish oligopeptides) Hypertension control
Globin digest Moderates lipid metabolism
Live lactic acid bacteria Improves intestinal environment, prevents growth of pathogens in intestines
Non-cariogenic sweeteners (palatinose, reduced palatinose, erythritol, maltitol, xylitol, lactitol) Prevent or do not cause dental caries
Polyphenols Prevent dental caries

Suppress cancer and arteriosclerosis, eliminate free radicals

Phytochemicals (blueberry anthocyanins) Relieve eyestrain
Champignon extract, green tea extract Prevents halitosis
Health teas (tochu, tencha, etc.) Hypertension control, anti-allergy, etc.

Diacylglycerol + phytosterol

Moderates lipid metabolism

Moderates lipid metabolism and cholesterol

Contributed by JAPANSCAN which has just published a new report ‘Functional Foods and Drinks in Japan’, October 1999. The information in this article was taken from this report. For further information on this and other reports