Japan may be one of the world’s top food and beverage export markets, particularly for the functional and health-giving varieties, but its food fads are as mysterious as the winds on Venus and seemingly just as volatile. Michael Fitzpatrick describes how food products become big in Japan.

One year it was cocoa that was flying off the shelves, the next it was red wine for its anti-oxidising health benefits. Word of mouth has its part to play in this (just under half of all health food fads are sparked this way) but given that many Japanese are obsessed with the media as much as with their health, to understand the market properly it would be well to look at the products and trends that popular food and lifestyle programmes choose to spotlight each week.

To satisfy an overwhelming desire for the novel, the nation’s media is constantly on the lookout for the next Big functional/health food Hit. And for some media, particularly a handful which exercise enormous clout with young women and housewives, they play the role of functional food King makers. For the majority of health food booms, their life starts on a couple of TV programmes that the nation’s females, at least, are loath to miss.

A huge raft of food-related magazines and newspaper sections also play their part in sparking food fads in Japan, but the acknowledged top propagandist is a noontime show called Gogo wa Maru-maru Omoikkiri Terebi broadcast by Nippon TV.

With the majority of married women working as housewives or in part-time jobs, millions of them will drop what they are doing to watch this life-style programme that aims at highlighting the latest ‘do-good’ products.

Essential endorsement

Presented by its glitzy host Monta Mino, the show which can be roughly translated as ‘All around us Satisfaction’, has been responsible for introducing a long line of health food products that have now become legend amongst Japanese as being undeniably wholesome and beneficial.

Other new shows on rival channels, such as other Hakkutsu! Aru-aru Daijiten (Encyclopedia of Living) and Tameshite Gatten (Trial & Success) have started to emulate ‘Satisfaction’s’ success and clout with the food industry. Between these three shows they have managed to boost several foodstuffs from relative obscurity to super health giving must-haves for any self respecting health food adherent, of which Japan has a large and growing number.

Hideo Kawahara of the Consumer Cooperative Institute of Japan says his outfit has done exhaustive studies on what makes the Japanese consumer tick and points to one of the institute’s latest surveys to reveal what influences them.

“We found nearly half of our members and over half the public we polled looked to TV programmes or ads for the latest information on health foods. About the same again said they had tried new foods on the strength of what they had seen on TV.” NHK’s Hakkutsu proved to be the most influential with 60% of respondents saying they tuned to get the latest info on food and health.

Booming health food market

Those figures translate to an enormous health food market which is still growing in Japan. The domestic market for health food stood at some ¥1.33 trillion (US$12.12bn) in 2002, up nearly 30% from five years before, according to a Suntory Foods estimate. Among the unlikely hit products are cocoa, red wine, amino acids, almonds and even smoked hams.

Just under ten years ago cocoa was hard to come by in Japan. Japanese simply didn’t like chocolate drinks. Then the media took hold of health researchers’ evidence that cocoa contained heaps of polyphenol – an antioxidant, that prevents diseases such as hardening of the arteries and diabetes and promises to act against the aging process. Days later the chocolate powder disappeared from the nation’s shop shelves and cocoa importers found they had a new market on their hands.

Walnut and almond importers found themselves in similar positions when the media seized on the Omega 3 benefits of their products. To a seafood-gobbling nation already familiar with the benefits of this nutrient that is abundant in fish, the knowledge that the same benefits could be had from eating a few very convenient nuts was a godsend for increasingly harried housewives and office workers. For those remaining unconvinced, the TV networks trotted out expert after expert who would vouch for the scientific research behind each claim.

Lifestyle shows backed by hard science

When Fuji TV’s Encyclopedia of Living dedicated a programme to the benefits of almonds and walnuts it was able to back health claims for the nuts by citing august journals such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and turning up evidence uncovered by clinical tests performed in Spain and elsewhere. This mixture of popular day time lifestyle TV and serious scientific research has become such an influence on the nation’s eating habits that such programmes have became de rigueur watching for the nation’s food industry leaders.

The content of these shows can also be influenced in many ways by food producers, as sponsorship of the programmes is open to all as are the ad slots. Japan does not, as in many other countries, have prohibitions against such blatant blurring of journalism and commercial interests. Indeed the two often go hand in hand with industry very happy to set the agenda for the media.

Journalistic and commercial interests hand-in-glove

Industry insiders suggest the huge interest generated in Amino Acid supplements illustrate this well in Japan, with producers happily advertising alongside whole programmes dedicated to the supplements. Scientific experts too are easily recruited to give testimony, again perhaps because the distinction between independent researchers and food industry researchers is often blurred in the public mind, too.

The result is that amino acid foods and drink supplements have rocketed in recent years and while other food fads such as cocoa have come and gone amino acids sales remain as buoyant as ever, as does media interest.

Ironically, the faddishness that is so much a part of the Japanese psyche, in health food booms at least, may slow as the government tunes into a new craze – one for food safety. With new legislation in place it may prove more difficult for the food watcher’s programmes to jack up health food claims with citations from their long list of well paid scientific researchers. But the nation’s health-conscious will certainly miss out on tuning into the latest food craze – no matter how far-fetched they were.