Cheese Substitute

With food prices, and especially dairy prices, so high it should come as no surprise that substitutes are now being considered. In yesterday's edition of The Japan Food Journal (Japanese language) there is an article about Marine Foods coming out with a cheese substitute made from plant oils. There are plenty of other products being offered as substitutes, but this one serves as a good example.

This cheese substitute is called sutirino (スティリーノ) and is aimed at the industrial use market or the private brand market. It costs 30 percent less than cheese and can be used at a mix with cheese or as a complete replacement.

I would have to think that the physical properties would differ somewhat from processed cheese and I also wonder about the trans-fats since this is processed plant oil. But the biggest question is taste - if it does not taste good, it will not do well. The taste of good cheese is very complex and almost impossible to copy. The complete set of compounds that contribute to the taste of cheese differ by the variety cheese and are still not completely understood.

Nevertheless, with prices what they are, there will certainly be many more alternatives proposed for a large variety of foods.


Update: Eel and PB

There was an article in the evening edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun, that I did not see until after my posting on eel (unagi). It concerns one of the many cases of mislabeled food in Japan. Food produced in Japan sells at a premium. As a result there have been many cases of imported food, being relabeled as Japanese and therefore sold at a premium. In this article a company was raided over the mislabeling of Chinese eel as Japanese eel. Therefore, the Taiwanese (as distinct from the Chinese) are trying to raise impression of their product so that it will sell at a premium similar to Japanese eel.

Concerning PB, I was mistaken about Seven and I Holdings' private branding, their PB products are sold at a slight discount. Although there is an article in the July 25 edition of Nikkei Shimbun about how all the companies turning to private branding are not immune to commodity prices and are having to increase their prices at the same paces as national brands.

There is also an article in July 26 edition of Nihon Nogyo which addresses if all these retailers are ready to take on the risks associated with product safety, ingredient sourcing, etc. Retailers claim they are ready to take on the risk, but the risks can be huge. One mistake, badly handled can ruin a company.



There is an interesting feature in daily The Japan Food Journal (Japanese language) on July 23rd about musenmai, which is rice that does not need to be washed before preparation. The rice is the same but the processing is different and the taste is essentially the same. Musenmai ends up being about 100 yen more per 5 kg, which is not much of a difference.

This type of rice has become very popular due to the ease of preparation, but the article focuses on the carbon footprint of the two types of rice. They conclude that if you include the consumer's washing and the added cost of cleaning up the solids in the waste water, musenmai has a smaller carbon footprint. Interesting, because I would have thought that extra processing would have lead to the opposite, but there is not extra processing, just different processing.


Taiwanese Eel

This year the days to eat unagi (eel) are July 24th and August 5th. The days are called 土用の丑の日(Doyo no uchi no hi) - sometimes called Eel Day for lack of a better term in English. Actually, I didn't even know there could two days, but they are listed on the Japanese Wikipedia page. The story can be found lots of places on the internet, but essentially during the Edo Era unagi sellers came up with a story that if you eat unagi on the Ushi no Hi day of the Chinese calendar in during the summer it will help you beat the heat.

What I found interesting was that it is such a boost for unagi sales that this year Taiwan eel farmers are conducting a big push to get Japanese to eat Taiwanese eel, stressing the safety and traceability of Taiwanese cultivated eel.

Here is another interesting post about a new eel extract drink.


Nikuman and Seasonal Food

There is an article on Nikkei Trendy about the new nikuman (manju) lineup being introduced by Circle K Sunkus in August.

I find this very interesting because it was not long ago that nikuman was a seasonal food, only sold in convenience stores during the winter months. This was very noticeable, because each convenience store had to clear out table space for the large nikuman heating machines. Now nikuman, and sometimes oden, have become year-round offerings in convenience stores.

I love nikuman and welcome the availability, but also feel that something Japanese is being lost by not following the seasons. It seems very American to insist on exactly what foods you want regardless of season.


Summer Bonuses Down

Bonuses in Japan are usually set by the unions according to parameters such as age, length of employment and a relatively small performance component. The biggest variation from bonus to bonus is due to the company's overall economic performance.

This article on Japan Today notes that bonuses are down due to the overall economy, but I bet the bonuses in the food industry are down much more overall due to the price squeeze most companies are facing.


Japan - Rice as Alternative to Corn, Wheat

There is an article on Bloomberg about how Japan is going to increase rice production as an alternative to the large amounts of wheat and corn Japan imports. This was not feasible in the past, but due to the sky rocketing prices of all grains, domestic rice is no longer simply the protected, high price crop it used to be.

Most of the new rice cultivation will be of high yield varieties aimed at use as livestock feed.


Private Brands (2)

Continuing from yesterday's post, there was an article on Japan Today about how Family Mart is going beyond Private Branding and actually building their own factory for mineral water drinks.
Sounds like a good place to start - packaging water is certainly on the low end of the technology scale. It should also be a good opportunity to produce a product at a low price, because some makers clearly make a killing on bottled water.


Private Brands (1)

Private Brands (PB) are brands owned by retailers and not producers. Most well known brands are owned by food producers and are called National Brands (NB). In recent years, the use of PB has exploded as retailers flex their muscles and as a way of keeping product prices down.

This is not a welcome development for food producers because they depend on brand value to keep prices high enough to make profits. With PB, the retailer simply defines the product specifications and then lets producers bid the rights to produce the product. This reduces the food producers to not much more than contract manufacturers. The up side for producers is that such contracts are usually for large volumes.

One example of PB which is not new is the milk you see at McDonald's. If you look on the side, it is manufactured by Meiji Dairies. Newer examples are convenience stores which are increasing the number of PB very rapidly. Seven-Eleven is part of Seven and I Holdings, therefore both Seven-Eleven and Itoyokado both sell the same PB products. It appears to me that this is an attempt to replace NB, because the prices do not appear to be greatly discounted. I suppose this is why the line is called "Seven Premium".

In an article on Nikkei Trendy, the way Lawson is using PB to keep prices down, as well as the the moves by both Lawson and Seven and I Holdings to make a wider variety of more basic items such as seasonings as PB.


Yamazaki Lunch Packs

There is an interesting product profile on Nikkei Trendy of Yamazaki's "lunch pack" series.

Yamazaki Baking Co. is the largest bread manufacturer in Japan. I don't really like the mass produced bread sold in Japan, but that is really the fault of consumer preference. The white breads are very bland and the crust is removed prior to packaging in many cases. These "lunch packs" are a good idea though. Basically, the lunch packs are two pieces of bread mashed together around the edges with something stuffed inside. Here is my list of some of the interesting points made in the article:

1) this product was first introduced in 1984. With the extremely high turnover of most products in Japan, a 24 year history as a best seller is very impressive indeed.

2) over the years, there have been several hundred versions introduced. That sounds like a lot, but product renewal in Japan happens as fast as product turnover, so this is not really that surprising. It does make one curious to see a list of the interesting variations that must have been introduced over the years. No such list is provided. They do however mention the two most popular varieties though - peanut butter and egg salad.

3) the main reasons cited for the product variety are the desire to have enough variations so that people can buy the product daily without getting tired of the same thing every day and also the products which are only sold in certain regions of Japan (something food companies do frequently in Japan).

4) the marketers first thought, as would I, that the main market for these products would be men who want a quick lunch, but they found that women were the main consumers. The reason turned out to be the appeal to women of a portable light lunch.

5) the article claims that the result of the marketing plan focusing on women has taken the sales in 2001 (0.59 billion yen per year) to a projected 40 billion yen in 2008. Wow!


6) around one million packs are produced every day.


Fishermen Strike

There have been several fishermen "strikes" over the past few months. It started out with an squid fishermen's strike, and has now broadened.

As with many things in Japan, a direct translation does not always convey what is going on. First, strikes in Japan are rarely the long grueling processes that you see in other countries. I remember when I first came to Japan, there was a strike on the private railway that many people used each day to get to work. When people said that there would be a strike starting the next day, I started wondering how to prepare for the coming weeks or months. But the strike ended up being just several hours long, just long enough to make a small point. The issues were settled not long after.

In this case fishermen are "striking" against the consumer, and it is not clear to me what they hope to gain. The first squid strike caused a temporary jump of 32% in the wholesale price of squid. The purpose was call attention to high fuel prices which make fishing unprofitable.

In this more general strike, the aim is the same - calling attention to the effect of high fuel prices. Eventually, they appear to want fuel subsidies from the government, but have not made specific demands yet.


Anheuser-Busch to be sold to InBev

The sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev (Belgium) is big news in the US, less so here in Japan. A little bit of nationalism comes into play of course. Many Americans liked the idea that the world's largest beer company was American, even though the watery taste of major US brands is not very popular in other parts of the world.

In graduate school, I remember a European friend of mine laughing for days after hearing a commercial on TV for a US beer. I forget which brand it was, but the ad campaign touted the fact that the beer had "no aftertaste". My friend kept saying "No aftertaste?? You drink beer FOR the aftertaste!!". I also wonder if this is somehow related to the way many Americans seem to drink to get drunk and not to slowly enjoy the taste of a good beer.

I have to say that I agree with the European approach. I like beers with a strong taste (and aftertaste) and therefore tend to choose bitter or stout beers.

I like the taste of Japanese beer, which does not differ all that much between the major manufacturers.

Occasionally there are ad campaigns for Budweiser using the Budweiser girls in their racy outfits and there are posters and cutouts of the same girls in some Tokyo bars, but the market penetration in Japan is very low for US brands.

InBev does not even have a website focused on Japan (English or Japanese). Becks and Stella Artois can be found, but even less frequently than Budweiser.


Suntory overtakes Sapporo to become No 3

It appears that Suntory has overtaken Sapporo in the most recent sales figures. Asahi and Kirin are the clear No 1 and No 2, but Sapporo has been slipping in recent years, while Suntory has been gaining.

Suntory actually taking No 3 might be a bit premature, because they held off on price increases following the last price hike in wheat prices. Sapporo plans to make up for the lost sales once Suntory brings its prices in line with other producers.


Japanese Companies will Label Carbon Footprint

There was an article in the 2008.06.19 edition of Nikkei Shimbun that says that by the end of 2009, Ajinomoto will start labeling all its seasoning products and frozen foods with their carbon footprint. It also says that Ajinomoto will be the first Japanese company to do so, but in a 2008.06.23 Kyodo News article, it states that Sapporo Beer will start labeling its "Black Label Beer" brand 350 ml cans with their carbon footprint starting next year.

I am not sure who wins, but these moves will likely put pressure on other companies to follow suit.


Matsushita Becomes Panasonic

I believe most Americans are only familiar with the Panasonic brand, but up until 2004, most of the Matsushita Corporation electronics and other products were sold under the National brand in Japan. That was a bit confusing at first, because to a smaller degree Panasonic branded products were also available here.

Since 2004 they have been phasing out the National brand (I understand that this is due to the difficulty of obtaining trademarks in other countries), and as of October of this year, the name of the company itself will become Panasonic, replacing the namesake of the founder. At that point, the brand consolidation will be complete and Matsushita and National will not be used anymore.


Or Just Try Chocolate Milk During Exercise

Following from yesterday's post, here is an article from the New York Times about sports recovery. An expert in the article suggests just drinking low-fat chocolate milk, because what you really need is carbohydrate and protein.


Sports Drinks in Japan

These was a pretty good article distributed by Kyodo News Agency which gave a quick history and run down of the big sports drinks in Japan. Of course there are many, many sports drinks in Japan and more are introduced every year, but I think this article was right to narrow it down to 3 high profile sports drinks which interesting histories.

Coca Cola - Aquarius This was introduced in the 1980s and is an isotonic drink. It remains a strong brand for Coca Cola here in Japan, but is not used outside Japan for some reason. Outside Japan, Coca Cola sells Poweraide.

Meiji Dairies Corporation - VAAM This was the first amino acid drink introduced in Japan (or possibly anywhere) and it is based on the amino acid mixture which hornets feed on and which allows them to fly long distances. Naoko Takahashi won the Sydney Olympics Women's Marathon while using VAAM.

Otsuka Seiyaku - Amino Value This is another amino acid drink, but it stresses the value of branched-chain amino acids, which are said to assist recovery. Mizuki Noguchi won the Athens Olympics Women's Marathon while using this Amino Value.

It is interesting to note that Gatoraide has tried several times to crack the Japanese market, but has failed with several different partners.


Asahi Style Free

On the internet and in newspapers there are often articles and examples of Japanese English which was very funny. Sometimes it is a little more complicated than a simple error. The Japanese absorbs words from other languages almost constantly, especially from English. But as soon as they the foreign words became part of Japanese, the meaning starts to change. I think this is one of the most frequent causes of Japanese people's mistakes in English.

The name of this Asahi low malt beer (happoshu) is Style Free. In English this sounds like the product completely lacks style - not good. But in Japanese has taken the word free in the sense that you are freed from restraints. So when you see gloves that say "size free" it means "one size fits all". Therefore, "style free" means "drink this beer in any situation and don't be constrained by a certain style or occasion".
The English which follows "refreshing new style" could be doublingly confounding it you do not keep in mind that they are trying to stay something like "a new style which is free of the constrains of any specific style". My wording here is less than eloquent, but hopefully you get the idea.


Japanese and Given Names

The use of given names in Japanese is interesting and can be frustrating. First of all, Japanese put the family name first, so the names are generally reversed when making the transition to English.

But the main frustration with given names is that they are used much less than in the West. In Japanese, if you just use someone's given name, it would sound like he or she is a family member or a very close friend. If there are two Suzuki's in the office, they might be distinguished by their given name and possibly by use of only their given names, but this would still be somewhat uncommon.

What is really confusing is when a Japanese uses only his or her given name when doing international business, or worse, he or she chooses a shortened version (such as Tak or Yasu) or even a Western nickname. Generally, that name is of no use when you try to employ it in Japan. If you just ask for someone by his or her given name, you will likely receive a blank stare. Even in the same office, only a minority of people would be able to state the full names of all their coworkers.

Over the past 10 years or so, computer systems have made it necessary to be able to at least pick out the full name of the person you are looking for, but stating full names from memory is another matter.


From Coke Light to Coke Zero

Here is a picture of a vending machine in transition from Coke Light to Coke Zero. In fact, this might already be dated (it was taken in May), because I have not seen much Coke Light recently, either in vending machines or in convenience stores.

Unless my memory forsakes me, there was Coke Light many years ago and then Diet Coke. The website says that Diet Coke became Coke Light in April of 2007 (it is called "Non-calorie Coke" in Japanese, ノーカロリー コカ・コーラ). Then Coke Zero was introduced in June of 2007 and appears to be taking over.

A vitamin fortified version of Coke Light has just been introduced, so that might be where they are taking the brand.


Suntory Dakara Zero Style

Here is a popular and interesting sports drink. Suntory's Dakara Zero Style claims zero sugar, zero fat and zero salt - thus the name. It also claims to retain its sweetness and to have a good balance for your body (presumably from the calcium, potassium and magnesium contained).

With all these zero's I was surprised to see that there are 17 kcal per 100 ml. That is not much less than low calorie beer (happoshu can be as little as 24 kcal per 100 ml). A closer look shows that there are sugars added, just not table sugar (zero 砂糖 but not zero 糖類 or zero 糖質).


Japanese Cheese Market

There is an interesting article in the June 30th edition of Shokuhin Sangyo Shimbun (食品産業新聞) about the Japanese cheese market. Here are some of the points made in the article:
- cheese prices are expected to go up another 10 to 15 percent by next Autumn, due to increasing dairy ingredient prices,
- as in other industries, repackaging is also being used in addition to price increases (for example, 10 slice processed cheese packs are now 8 slice packs),
- the price increases will likely lead to reduced imports of natural cheese and lower consumption of industrial use cheeses.

There is also a nice chart showing the variation in the Japanese cheese production and consumption for each year from 1990 to 2007. Here are some interesting numbers (all in tons) comparing the years 1990 and 2007 (data from the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry).

Domestic Natural Cheese Production 28,415 and 42,948
Imported Natural Cheese 111,629 and 211,405
Processed Cheese Consumption 77,428 and 163,262
Total Cheese Consumption 153,325 and 279,189
(some of the natural cheese is used to produce the processed cheese)


Prices of Products Made from Flour

There is an article in the June 30th edition of Shokuhin Sangyo Shimbun (食品産業新聞) showing some of the price rises in products made from flour by comparing the prices in September with the higher prices in April (the month the government raised flour prices by 30%).

flour 137 to 157 yen
cup ramen 91 to 108 yen
spaghetti 142 to 174 yen
white bread 125 to 136 yen


Tea Harvesting Season in Shizuoka

There is an interesting chart in the June 27th edition of The Japan Food Journal (日本食糧新聞), showing the Spring tea leaf picking season for last year and this year.

The season was a bit delayed this year and the yield is down (due to the cool weather, I suppose), but still the season started only two days later than last year and lasted for the same number of days. The exact same pattern of harvested tea-per-day was shown both years. The first days are best and then the yield per day decreases steadily. This would not be interesting to someone in the tea industry, but I find the way mother nature keeps to a fairly strict schedule interesting.

2007 Season April 19th to May 17th
2008 Season April 21st to May 19th

The article points out that for the 3rd year in a row, the price of even good quality tea is down. That goes against the trends for other crops, especially grains.


Ramune Flavored Toothpaste

Here is a ramune flavored children's toothpaste from Apagard. I think this is a good example of how popular the ramune taste is with Japanese young people. Seems like the most popular flavor for such products in the US is bubblegum.


Ramune - a Japanese Flavor

Anyone who has lived in Japan, has seen ramune drinks - mostly likely at a local festival. There is a nice Wikipedia entry on ramune here. I did not realize that it had been invented by a foreigner, but apparently the Scot, Alexander Cameron Sim, first came up the the concoction in 1870 in Kobe.

The name comes from a Japanization of the word lemonade, and the flavor is a carbonated lemon-lime flavor. The unique bottle is also traditional and distinctive.

If any company is considering flavorings in Japan, ramune flavor should at least be considered, it is very popular with Japanese youth.

The photo is from Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.


Biofuels To Blame

Here is a damning article from the Guardian, which says that according to a still secret World Bank report, 75% of food price rises are due to biofuels and not 3% as the Bush administration claims.

I have always considered the idea behind biofuels to be ridiculous. The whole idea is clearly aimed at supporting farmers. And since Iowa is one of the first primary states for any presidential election, all presidents have to be pro-corn and pro-biofuel. But putting that much energy into making something to burn has always sounded crazy.

Japan has some initiatives to use the power from trash they intend to burn anyway. That makes a lot of sense. If I remember correctly that was referred to as biofuel also, even though the concept was quite different.


Heinz Squid Ink Spaghetti Sauce

Heinz sells squid ink pasta sauce in Japan. I am not sure how well the product is doing, but squid ink is a standard spaghetti sauce in Japan, and is available at all Italian restaurants. You also see squid ink flavored snacks fairly often - usually as limited edition products.

I checked on the US website and did not find any such product for sale in the US by Heinz, so I suppose this was specially developed for the Japanese market.

The love of all things squid is one of many things that overlaps in Japanese and Italian food.


Food Miles and Climate Change

There is an interesting article in the recent issue of the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology titled "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States".

Recently, people who are environmentally conscious and who also believe that organic food is more healthy have had to start balancing their desire to buy organic food (which might not be locally produced) with their desire to fight climate change by buying locally (and thus minimizing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions).

As I read it, this article addresses two big questions: how much does distance and transportation add to the carbon emissions related to food in the US? and what are the differences in total emissions (production and transportation) between food categories in the US?

The answer to the first question is not all that much. Total transportation only contributes 11% of the life-cycle greenhouse emissions of a product (4% of which is final delivery). Therefore savings can be made by buying locally, but not all that much. (I would add that buying locally, might very well involve less efficient production.)

To answer the second question, the data was broken down into seven groups:
1) Beverages
2) Cereals, Carbohydrates
3) Chicken, Fish, Eggs
4) Dairy
5) Fruit, Vegetables
6) Oils, Sweets, Condiments
7) Red Meat

The emissions of each these categories was measured four different ways: CO2/household, CO2/dollar, CO2/kCal and CO2/kg.

Red meat comes out as the largest contributor by a large margin using any of these measures (the authors estimate that red meat contributes 150% more greenhouse gases than chicken or fish). Dairy comes out high based on CO2/dollar (I would think this is because milk is historically very inexpensive relative to its nutritional value). When CO2/household and CO2/kCal are used, the contribution from dairy falls back a good deal, and when CO2/kg is used dairy falls in line with the minor contributors.

The authors suggest that replacing some red meat and dairy intake with chicken or fish, say once a week, would have a greater positive impact on the environment than buying locally.

It still looks to me like dairy should not be in the same category as red meat. Nevertheless, this is an interesting study and will surely invite similar analyses in other countries.


The DNA Files Podcast

There is a very interesting series on NPR, which is also being podcast, called "The DNA Files". The whole series is interesting, but the show called "Food in the Age of Biotechnology" is a very good summary of genetic modification. Past failures, current issues and future possibilities are all dealt with, while still allowing the listener to come to his or her own conclusion.

My personal opinion is that there is great promise in genetically modified foods, but the products which have made it to market so far have benefited farmers more than consumers, leading to the backlash. When clearly superior products, which are only available by genetic modification, start to hit the market, some consumers might change their attitudes on the subject.

Japan attitudes are closer to those of people in Europe than those in the US. No Japanese company wants to sell genetically modified food, but with so many commodities coming from the US, genetically modified ingredients are hard to avoid.


Gusto Restaurants and Anpanman

Anyone with kids in Japan knows about Anpanman, the young children's cartoon series where all the characters are different food items. I should devote an entire post to this in the future, but for now I would just like to note that Gusto Restaurants use Anpanman for their children's menu.
Almost all family restaurants in Japan use some Japanese cartoon character for their children's menus, but only rarely if ever US or European cartoon characters. I suppose that is because, aside from Disney characters, the penetration of US and European cartoon characters is not very deep.