Is Nippon Ham Interested in Anti-Fatigue Drinks?

Japan Pharmacology and Therapeutics (薬理と治療) is an interesting scientific publication to keep an eye on, because data from scientific trials are often published which shed light on what products both drug and food companies are trying to develop.

In the March issue, Nippon Ham published a set of three trials (anti-fatigue efficacy and two safety) on their imidazole dipeptides (CBEX-Dr) which are extracted from chicken breasts. Companies don't usually put out that much effort and money on human efficacy and safety trials unless they are serious.

The results were positive, but as there is not yet a FOSHU category for anti-fatigue, one wonders when they will be able to use the data and if so, will the protocols in this study be acceptable. It is not easy to measure fatigue.

The trials were all in the form of a drink, so maybe we can look forward to such a chicken breast extract drink from Nippon Ham.


Rakuten and Next-day Delivery of Perishables

Rakuten announced that it is going to start next day deliveries of perishables. In the future it plans to move to same day deliveries.

Rakuten is a large on-line seller in Japan, similar to Yahoo, with many affiliated stores.

I see that dairy is not mentioned in the article, possibly because dairy is a bit more difficult and possibly because most of the major dairy companies already have home delivery networks.

Refrigerated express delivery (or "cool-bin", クール宅急便) has been a standard service for a long time in Japan and it is very convenient - no need for dry ice, for example. And as this article explains, it also makes new business concepts possible. The same service would not be possible in the US.


Taisho Pharmaceutical's Anti-Smoking Patch

There is a news item that Taisho Pharmaceutical is going to start selling a nonprescription anti-smoking patch. In the past smoking patches were prescription only. Why? Doesn't that sound overly restrictive? Maybe and that is not an area I have experience with, but sometimes there is more to the story.

It is very possible that in the past both makers and consumers liked the situation because prescribed drugs or devices are usually covered by health insurance. In this case, the government and/or makers are betting that usage will increase if the patches are sold over the counter.


Some Perspective on Food Prices

Food prices sure have been going up rapidly and the pinch is on everyone except farmers. At a time like this it is good to put things in perspective, because food prices have been low, many would say unnaturally low, for a long time.

There are almost daily articles in the papers about different companies raising prices. If you look closely though, you will see how long it has been since prices were last raised. There was an article in the April 3rd issue of Nihon Shokugyo which said that milk prices were being raised for the first time in 30 years. In the April 19th issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun, an article announces that Kentucky Fried Chicken was raising prices on chicken for the first time in 16 years.


Metabolic Syndrome and Japanese Companies

Here is an article from the International Herald Tribune which is pretty much right on the money from my experience. Starting last year, waist measurements became a part of annual physical examinations in Japan and all the people in my company received pedometers to encourage walking and exercise.

Many companies will face a penalty from the government if their workers do not on average make improvements, but for food and pharmaceutical companies this is also an opportunity to boost sales for products which help fight metabolic syndrome. Such products have been on the market for years now, but this new government policy is definitely giving the whole category a boost.

Only a few years ago, one would never hear the term metabolic syndrome except in scientific conversations, but these days it is a very common topic of everyday conversation.

Actually, I have read some unpublished reports on the development of definitions and standards for metabolic syndrome which are very interesting, but that is a topic for another day.


J's Garden

I have mentioned the fact that restaurants and food manufacturers are trying to cut down on ingredient costs by reducing the size of offerings. The other day I happened to eat at a J's Garden restaurant near Enoshima. It was the first time I had ever eaten at a J's Garden before. It does not look that different from many other family restaurants and although it specializes in pasta and pizza, it has a nice variety of items on the menu.

I ordered with the expectation of receiving Japanese portions or newly reduced Japanese portions as I have seen recently, but was surprised to receive something closer to American portions - unusual in Japan. J's Garden is part of the Johnathon's Family Restaurant group. I checked on the website and it looks like the locations are mostly in residential areas, so there is a better chance of coming across one in a car than near a station.

I give it a thumbs up compared with other family restaurants.


Rose Oil Gum and Old Man Smell

Kracie is selling gum aimed at older men who don't want to smell like older men. I looked up the main ingredient, geraniol, and it is the main component of rose oil and is used in some perfumes, various flavorings and even tobacco, but I am not sure why it is supposed to have a specially good effect for masking old man odor or "otoko kusai" (オトコくさい).
As I remember, another company isolated the main ingredient responsible for old man smell, but I am not sure what product resulted from that discovery.


Grades of New Tea

This is a picture from the same store as shown in yesterday's post. Although not readable from this picture, this stand is displaying 2 types and 4 different grades of Shizuoka tea.

The two types of tea featured are Saemitori and Yabukita and each is priced 840 to 2,100 yen based on grade. The Saemitori is said to have a strong umami taste and low astringency. The Yabukita is said to have a strong aroma and a nice balance of umami and astringent tastes. The only difference mentioned for the high grades is that they are hand picked.

These are typical grades, but if you ask the shopkeeper, much more expensive grades are also available.


Spring Tea Harvest

The local tea shops in Japan all have banners out in front announcing the "new tea" or newly harvested tea leaves. People who really like good tea will spend a lot for good, fresh tea leaves. There are multiple grades of tea which are difficult to understand and often are specific to the store.

Shizuoka and Kyoto are easily the most well-known region for tea production in Japan, but other areas such as Kyushu also produce tea.


Horse Meat

I just happened to come across this restaurant the other night. It was very late, so I didn't have time to give it a try. Anyway, even though the sign says that it is an "izakaya" or drinking and eating establishment, without any windows it looks more like a "sunakku" or private club.

In any case, I thought it was interesting because the specialty is horse meat. It is not unusual to see horse meat in Japan, but this is the first time I have seen a horse meat specialty restaurant. While I assume there are others, it is still not an everyday sight.
This restaurant is named Pops and it claims on the sign that the food is imported directly from Kumamoto (Kyushu).
For those who have trouble distinguishing between Asian countries and their cuisine, Japanese do eat whale and horse, but other animals such as dogs, cats, rats, etc. are never found for sale in Japan.


Floods in the US and Commodity Prices

Just as some people had been hoping that commodity prices and oil prices might have peaked, we are now seeing historic flooding in the US Midwest. Many farmers who might have been enjoying the high prices for corn and other commodities are now losing their crops and in some cases their homes.

Very sad, but it is also going to have a ripple effect - first on the crops directly effected, corn and soy, then on other grains as well, since there is a certain amount of interchangeability. It might also have an effect on oil prices as corn is increasingly being used for biofuel. Corn prices have reached 7 dollars per bushel for the first time ever, and oil prices are now being predicted to reach 140 dollars per barrel (although I have not seen a flood-oil price link referred to yet).


Higher Profits on Higher Food Prices?

According to this article in Investopeida, US food producers are showing increased profits resulting from higher prices. Heinz raised prices 4.5% and saw net income increase 7%. General Mills has seen a 17% earnings gain at the same time it was reducing box sizes to offset higher ingredient prices. If that works for them, great, but in Japan, the talk at many companies is simply how to stay profitable.

The article credits brand loyalty and stronger oversees sales. I am not in marketing, but I would guess that brand loyalty is not nearly as strong in Japan, because a culture of always trying something new has been cultivated. Consumers see a price they consider too high or a box they think is not as big as it should be and they simply buy something else.


Japanese Dairy Farmers are Also Squeezed

Japanese dairy farmers are also being squeezed by high food prices, or at least the Japanese government thinks so. According to this article, the 187.1 billion yen in supports for dairy farmers and stockbreeders, which was already up 63.2 billion yen from last year is going to be raised an additional 70 billion yen. These are mostly in the form of unit-subsidies.

I feel sure the butter shortage has also influenced this move, although any boosts in production will lag far behind a stimulus - especially in the dairy industry, where you cannot exactly plant more cows next year, you have to breed more herds of dairy cattle to make a difference.


Serving Size 2 Food Companies

Food companies are also reformulating or cutting serving size. Smaller packages, fewer slices, etc. has become the norm. Here is an example of a convenience store sausage wrap.
This was pretty obvious because the same product used to have 2 sausages, but now has only 1. The size of the remaining sausage might be a bit bigger, but the total size has certainly been reduced and the price, to be best of my recollection, has not changed. (Unfortunately, this tells you something about my eating habits.)


Serving Size 1 Restaurants

My family and I occasionally eat at a Japanese food family restaurant chain called Yumean (夢案), which we all enjoy. I took this picture last month, but at the time we were all surprised and amused to see that the size of this child's plate had shrunk quite a bit. Since that time, we have noticed the same thing a many other restaurants - often in the form a new menu. Hoping you will not notice, I am sure. Because of rising prices and possibly also due to smaller or unsatisfactory new menu items, it is easy to see that restaurants are not as crowded as they were only several months ago.

Reduced serving sizes are especially interesting to foreigners, because we typically laughed a small serving sizes before the current food crisis. I have generally assumed that Japanese serving sizes are about half of what they are in the US. This does not leave you very much room to cut further. Small serving sizes are undoubtedly more healthy than the huge platters you receive in the US, but at some point even Japanese are going to be left hungry.


Food Prices in Japan . . . Going Up

Food prices are big news all over the world and Japan is no exception. In fact, there is little upside to high food prices here, because Japan produces such a small percentage of what it consumes. Food companies and restaurants are caught in a squeeze, just trying to eek out a profit. Raise prices too much and you loose customers.

In a very unscientific survey, sampling size n=1, my wife said typical trips to the grocery store which used to cost around 6 to 7 thousand yen, now lost around 9 thousand yen.


Coffee Hunter

Coca Cola's Georgia coffee brand has come out with an interesting new product called Coffee Hunter, which has an silhouette of someone who might be confused with Indiana Jones. This explorer travels the world looking for the best coffee beans. This looks to be the first in a series.
This coffee is from beans grown in Flores Island, Indonesia. 「コーヒーハンターが世界中の産地を巡って探し出してきたとっておきのコーヒー豆をお届けました。」 It tastes pretty standard to me, but it might very well be a good promotion to go along with the new Indiana Jones movie.


A Label to be Envious of

Meiji Dairies "Ocha" Green Tea
Energy 0
Carbohydrates 0
Protein 0
Fat 0
Sodium 37 mg
Ingredients: Green Tea, Vitamin C
"Natural Water is Used"
"Shizuoka Tea Leaves are Used"
Nothing to hide or cause concern on this label, and it is all natural. This is a good example of popular tea products in Japan. Teas and coffees outsell soft drinks here, and aside from the health benefits of tea ingredients which have been proposed, simply consuming a natural, calorie free drink likely helps a great deal in keeping weight off.

If you eat Japanese food in a restaurant or if you buy a Japanese boxed lunch (bento, 弁当) in a railway station, various teas are frequently your only choice of drink, because stronger tasting or sweet drinks are thought not to go well with traditional Japanese food.


PET Bottles and Cats

This post certainly has nothing to do with science. A number of years ago (7 or more), the urban myth spread in Japan that you could keep away cats by putting out PET bottles filled with water. I didn't realize that cats were that big of a problem, but around that time you started to see water-filled PET bottles everywhere.

This myth has been proven false repeatedly, but water-filled PET bottles are still easy to find on a stroll down almost any street.


Burger King Celebrates 1st Anniversary in Japan . . . again

Burger King was in Japan from 1996 to 2001, but reportedly could not compete with McDonald's in a price war. I also heard at the time that there were marketing disagreements with partners and people in different parts of the company. Even if that was not true, it made sense to me at the time. The offerings were largely the same as in the US, where you forget about calories and focus on size and strong taste.

Personally, I thought that the Burger King taste was the main problem, even though I like it myself. Burger King sandwiches have a strong meaty taste and aroma which is not common in Japan. This is in contrast with McDonald's sandwiches which are much milder in this respect.

Now they are back for another try. They only have 6 locations so far - all in Tokyo. Japanese tastes have been changing over the years, so maybe Japan is ready for Burger King now. Recently monster-size burgers at McDonald's and other chains have been popular, so the size of Burger King's sandwiches might prove to be popular.

This time around, Burger King Japan opened its first store on June 8, 2007 and therefore is now celebrating its one year anniversary. Good Luck.


100 Yen Vending Machines

The current price for 350 ml cans of non-alcoholic drinks is 120 yen, but you can find discount outlets and vending machines if you keep you eyes open. Here is a picture of Dydo and Suntory discount vending machines side-by-side.


The "To" in Torui and Muto

This is a picture of a typical "muto" (or zero sugar, 無糖) black coffee - Pokka brand Biz Time Cafe Black. On such products there is a listing for torui (sugars, 糖類) separate from the obligatory carbohydrate (炭水化物) category. What exactly are the criteria for sugars?

This is a link to an informative guide which can be found on a Kanagawa Government webpage, but is also referenced and linked to by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Sugars are any mono- or disaccarides (excluding alcohols). It is that simple, but it is certainly not perfect. By this definition, products might be fructose-free but still contain sugars - milk for example.


Canned Coffee Survey

One very good source of information on Japanese trends and products is Nikkei Trendy (Japanese). This week there is a survey on canned coffee use and preferences. For those interested in this topic for professional reasons, the entire survey is available for sale. For those who simply have an interest in trends, the on-line version should be quite sufficient.

I will just mention a few points I find interesting.
1) preference: sugar free/black > latte-type > low sugar/milk added > sugar/milk added > low sugar/black > no sugar/milk > expresso > sugar/black,
2) the biggest deviation in the above is with latte-type drinks (including cafe au lait) which are much more popular among younger people than older people,
3) canned coffee is much more popular than chilled cup coffee, only among women does the preference come close to that of canned coffee,
4) reason for drinking canned coffee: change mood or feeling > relax > wake up > no reason > need for something in mouth > to concentrate,
5) people who smoke or frequent convenience stores have the strongest preference for canned coffee,
6) ability to mention a brand name: Boss > Georgia >>>> Wonda > Fire > others

The interest in low sugar products is clear, as is the excellent marketing job Suntory has done with the Boss brand.


Breast Milk or Infant Formula not Water

There is an important posting on the Junkfood Science blog concerning hyponatremic seizures resulting from infants being given water to drink. This can also occur if infants are fed diluted infant formula. In short, inadequate sodium levels cause hyponatremia, which in turn leads to an osmotic shift of water from the plasma into cells (such as brain cells) and finally symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. It can also happen in adults (causing confusion and coma), but infants are particularly susceptible.

There is a concern that with increasing food prices, poor mothers may try to stretch infant formula by watering it down. This is certainly not the right thing to do.

Breast milk is the best option for infants. If mother's cannot breastfeed their infants, infant formula is the next best option. Food companies put a great deal of research into making infant formula as close to breast milk as possible. The science in this area has progressed a great deal in recent years, but it is important to use infant formula as directed. After all for that important period, infant formula will be the only nutrition the child will consume.

Taking the discussion a little further, cow's milk is not appropriate for infants either. The composition of cow's milk and mother's milk is significantly different. This is something that was not fully realized a generation or so ago.


Soft Drinks and Cavities

There is an interesting paper in Nutrition Research "Acidic Beverages Increase the Risk of in vitro Tooth Erosion". A group at U of Iowa College of Dentistry compared the effect of Gatorade, Red Bull, Coke, Diet Coke, and Apple Juice, as examples of sports drinks, energy drinks, carbonated soft drinks, diet drinks and juices, respectively, on extracted teeth.

In a pretty simple setup, they simply soaked the extracted teeth in each drink for 25 hours, refreshing the liquid every 5 hours. The acidities of the drinks were measured by straight forward titration. They only went high-tech, and thus beyond what you could do in a high school chemistry class, when they started to measuring the lesions.

Interestingly, the lesion depths corresponded roughly but not exactly with the acidity of the drinks. The most acidic drink was Red Bull, but Gatorade did the most harm. The lesions were measured in micrometers and the results were Gatorade (131), Red Bull (100), Coke (92), Diet Coke (61) and 100% Apple Juice (57).

Anyone who has seen the chemistry demonstration in which a highly acidic solution is used to dissolve a tooth, will not be surprised. This study appears to be a more scientific recreation of the same thing. It still does not tell you exactly what is going to happen under in vivo conditions, but basic chemistry suggests that anyone who spends a great deal of time each day swishing around acidic liquids is not doing his or her teeth much good.

If you want the opposite effect, try dairy. There appear to be a number of reasons why dairy actually acts to inhibit tooth decay (calcium, active proteins, beneficial bacteria, low acidity, etc.). Below are two representative papers on dairy and dental health.

Dairy Products and Caries

Dairy Products and Periodontal Disease


Tougher Drunk Driving Laws in Japan

As of September last year, the drunk driving laws in Japan became much stricter, with very little tolerance at all. A blood alcohol level as low as 0.03 can result in a jail term of up to 3 years. Those supplying drunk drivers with vehicles or alcohol, or even those riding as a passenger in the same car as a drunk driver, can be subject to similar penalties (only slightly less severe). Restaurants are taking this new liability seriously, as you might guess, and most now have signs warning people not to drink and drive. I thought this sign was interesting because it looks very Japanese, as a Japanese sake decanter is pictured instead of a glass of beer.