Soy Milk and Taste

Here is an article about new flavors for Kibun's soy milk - melon and yakiimo (grilled sweet potato). That is not too interesting, but the subject of soy milk flavoring is interesting. I cannot remember where I read this, but I did read somewhere that the approach to soy milk flavoring Japan and the US is very different. In the US, people generally do not like the taste of soy and therefore masking is objective. In Japan, people like the taste of soy, so complementing the taste is the goal.


Morinaga Chorus

There is a product renewal article on Nikkei Trendy. Not overly interesting, just a new flavor - peach - but it mentions in the article that the Morinaga Chorus product was first introduced in 1927, which was a surprise. That took the history of lactic acid drinks back earlier than I had been thinking. Sure enough, a quick search shows that Calpis was introduced in 1919.


McDonald's Tsukimi Burger

McDonald's will sell the tsukimi burger again next month. For a long time after coming to Japan, I kept seeing the tsukimi burger offered over and over again. Deja vu over and over as they say. It certainly has become a tradition, this article says that McDonald's Japan first started selling it in 1991 as a seasonal offering.

As can be seen the the picture, the tsukimi burger employs an egg in the same form seen on Egg McMuffins. Tsukimi means viewing the moon in Japanese, so I suppose the yolk is supposed to represent the moon, although the round shape of the egg might also be what is being referred to.


Sapporo Classic 2008 Furano Vintage Beer

With a name that long it has to be good, I suppose.

Sapporo Classic 2008 Furano Vintage Beer is a limited production (30,000 cases) beer. They claim a fresh taste due to hops which has not been processed in any way.

Furano is an area of Hokkaido, and I believe the Vintage refers to the harvest of the hops and barley in that area during 2008, under special licence of Sapporo.

Interestingly, despite the name Sapporo, the head office has long been in Tokyo. Last year a special product development office in Hokkaido and this is one of the first results. Interestingly, due to that move, the development received regional development assistance from the national government.


Nisshin Foods and Chicken Ramen

Nissin Foods is celebrating 50 years as a company (not counting the small, in house operation that started 10 years earlier) and along with it 50 years of Chicken Ramen, their first product and still a big seller.

Momofuku Ando's story is well known, he developed the method of producing instant noodles and the resulting company he started enjoyed almost overnight success with the introduction of chicken ramen.

It was considered a luxury in post-war Japan, but is now a convenience and can be found world-wide. Happy birthday chicken ramen!


Region Specific Marketing

Many people new to Japan are often surprised that on one hand while menus across the country look pretty similar, there certainly are styles and seasonings that vary from region to region.

Almost everyone is familiar with the "omiyage" which are supposed to represent what is "famous" from a specific area, and which are usually food and packaged in a way to be made convenient for the obligatory present to co-workers upon return from a vacation. These "famous products" from various regions usually have historical basis, but a lot of hype is required to keep them going.

Another regional variation most people are familiar with are items like ramen or okonomiyaki which differ by region - Sapporo ramen, Osaka okonomiyaki, etc.

Most food companies on the other hand are faced with more subtle variations which can make or break a product. Many products are limited to Eastern or Western Japan simply do to their appeal in one of those areas.

Major, nation-wide food companies often introduce new products in just one regional market 1) because that area was found most promising in consumer research, 2) in order to evaluate a product in a test market with specific characteristics (Shizuoka is known for being somewhere between Osaka and Tokyo in its preferences and is thus the preferred test market), or 3) with no intention of going nation-wide (usually these are seasonal and are marketed to make the people of that region feel special - people in other regions cannot buy the product).

I am not sure which of the above applies to the new mushroom burger from Mos Burger, but it is only being introduced in Western Japan. It is said to have an Autumnal flavor. Announcements like this are hardly rare, but they are interesting to follow up on. Chances are those of us in Eastern Japan will not get a chance to buy this mushroom burger even though there are Mos Burgers on almost every other corner.


High Food Prices: CVS and Restaurants

It is interesting that high food prices effects convenience stores (CVS) and restaurants differently. High prices hurt restaurants and the empty tables you might have noticed attest to that. If you still are not convinced, Denny's has just announced that it will be reducing some prices which is always a sign of poor sales.

At the same time, all CVS chains are reporting around 11 percent increased sales over last year. Prices at CVS are not cheap, but they are cheaper than at restaurants. People appear to be making that calculation.


Asahi's Imitation Milk

Asahi is introducing a nutrition drink (350 ml PET bottle) which is low calorie and contains no fat, but has the same calcium as 200 ml of milk. The packaging is designed to remind you of milk. Just having the same amount of calcium in a drink is no guarantee that the same amount will be absorbed by the body, and 157 yen is expensive for a 350 ml bottle. That is the same price as most 500 ml PET bottle drinks.

It does have fewer calories than milk, but I would rather pay 100 or 110 yen for 200 ml of milk.


Service Area Food

Japanese have long had ekiben (special boxed lunches only sold at certain train stations). The same way of thinking goes into the special foods only available at certain service areas along Japanese highways. Here is an article that summarizes some of the best things to eat at various service areas. Interestingly, this is one of the most popular articles, more than two weeks after it was posted.


Packaging: Natto and Coffee

Packaging can seem very unimportant compared with what is inside, superior packaging can make or break a product. Visual design can make products stand out from the crowd, but functional design can also make products much more desirable.

Here are two examples from this week's news of new packaging.

Mitsukan, a major natto maker in Japan, introduced new packaging which allows for inclusion of the soy sauce in a same container and not in a separate plastic package. This saves time and helps avoid getting your hands or the table dirty (problems cited by customers).

Nescafe, is introducing new packaging for coffee refills which allow you to directly refill a jar of coffee without cutting open an aluminum refill bag (I didn't realize this was a problem). More interesting benefits include reduced loss of volatile aroma compounds during refilling (that sounds important as most of the flavor compounds are volatile) and this packaging reduces the amount of aluminum used by 30%, thus reducing the carbon footprint.


Seven Eleven and Katsuo

There are two articles about Seven Eleven and katsuo (bonito) containing products.

In one, Seven Eleven will be introducing a new selection of katsuo containing foods, which contain katsuo which have not been caught using net fishing off the coast of Ibaragi Prefecture - this is said to reduce scarring. Katsuo shavings are frequently used in Japanese cooking.

In the other, new flavoring including katsuo is announced for Seven Eleven oden. The oden in the picture really does look good, doesn't it?


Kimchi Mayonnaise Ramen

Nissin will be introducing a kimchi mayonnaise cup ramen next month. I am not really sure if this sounds good or terrible.


Beer Sales by Category

There was an interesting graph in yesterday's The Japan Food Journal. The exact numbers were not given, but you can eye the graph and come pretty close. The graph was a monthly measure of beer sales by category (beer, happoshu, 3rd category) compared with the sales in the previous year.

Two factors are clear:
1) 3rd category beer is what is carrying the market while beer sales have suffered big setbacks. This is likely do to the large price differences which have been discussed in this blog before.
2) there appears to be an unexpected boom in beer sales. 3rd category beer sales in July were up 40% over last year, happoshu 3% and beer 2%. The likely reason for this is the unusually hot summer we are having.


Arable Land in Japan

Continuing with the same article I have mentioned the past two days, there are some interesting numbers of land utilization in Japan. The numbers below are for the years 1985, 1995 and 2005.

Percentage of Arable Land Utilized (not sure how you go over 100%)
105.1% 97.7% 93.4%

Hectares of Farm Land Abandoned to Other Uses (in thousands)
135 244 386

Most of the other numbers in the report are less interesting as they deal with the case Japan is trying to make about Japanese consumers preferring Japanese produced food.


Food Self-Sufficiency 2

The numbers I mentioned yesterday were based on calories by the way. An article on the government report was published in The Japan Food Journal (Japanese) on 2008.07.18.

Some more interesting numbers from the same article are the following, concerning Japanese grain imports (how much and from where).

Wheat (148.9 billion yen)
 America 53.8%, Canada 24.2%, Australia 21.9%
Soy (149.1 billion yen)
 America 76.5%, Canada 9.2%, Brazil 8.1%, China 6.2%
Corn (300.8 billion yen)
 America 96.3%, China 2.8%


Food Self-Sufficiency

These numbers below are from the Japanese government, so they might be calculated in a way favorable to the message Japan wants to present, but however you look at it, Japan is a major food importer and worries about self-sufficiency and sudden changes in world markets are natural. The recent surge in food prices is a good example.

Australia 237%
Canada 145%
USA 128%
France 122%
Germany 84%
Great Britain 70%
Italy 62%
Switzerland 49%
South Korea 46%
Japan 39%


Environmental Measures by Food Companies

There was an interesting article in the 2008.07.18 evening edition of the Nikkei Shimbun. It mentioned some of the measures taken by various food companies to be more environmentally friendly.

Seven Eleven - thinner plastic bags
Asahi Beer - less aluminum in beer cans
Nissin Foods - ramen cups from resin/paper
Ezaki Glico - thinner boxes
Suntory - less material in PET bottles
Morinaga Milk - thinner glass bottles
Nippon Ham - thinner film on sausages


Natural Cheese Production in Japan

Most of the milk produced in Japan ends up as milk and not other dairy products. Since the demand for milk has held steady or decreased in recent years, the major dairy companies are aiming to replace a good deal of the imported natural cheese with domestic natural cheese.

As a result, a number of large natural cheese factories have opened in the past year. The June 1st issue of the Hokkaido Shimbun gave some details on the new factories and new production capacity. The numbers below are given in tons of raw milk used yearly.

Meiji Dairies
200,000 tons
Snow Brand
200,000 tons
Morinaga Milk
150,000 tons

Previously domestic natural cheese production was very limited. Expect to see a large number of new cheese products in the coming months.


Supermarket Circulars in Japan

One more website which might be of interest to people looking for information on Japanese products, which was brought to my attention on the Japan Marketing News blog.

Japanese supermarket sales depend on supermarket circulars which come with daily newspapers. If you want to stick with the same product, but get it at the cheapest price, you are likely to have to keep up with the circulars and buy at a different store each week depending on where it is on sale.

I have read that this is why Walmart, through its Seiyu department stores in Japan, have not been able to get across the everyday low prices concept. Most Japanese shoppers, read housewives, still think about supermarket circulars first.

Here is a website where many of the supermarket circulars are reproduced.


Company Histories

There is one more website I would like to mention. Information in English on Japanese companies is getting a little bit easier to find than in the past, but is still not what it should be. I just came across a website called Funding Universe and for some reason they have a big list of company histories on the website.

Many Japanese company histories are included, but some are very much out of date. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to start when you have struck out everywhere else.


Everything About Can Drinks

I mentioned an interesting blog yesterday, and today I would like to introduce a fascinating website devoted to can drinks in Japan, called Can Can Jiten (dictionary). I don't see any information about the author, but somebody has been going to the trouble since 1999 of recording all the information from the labels of all the canned drinks he or she can find. The result is a fairly amazing archive of data on almost 9,000 different drink cans. If you are interested in such things, you can spend hours on this site looking at the different products or the changes in a single product over time. Well done. I don't have that much free time or energy, but it is nice someone else does though.


Vending Machine Blog

There is a very eccentric and yet fascinating blog in Japanese about the daily changes made to a specific Japanese vending machine. Only the title of the blog is in Japanese, all the rest is shown through daily pictures of the vending machine. Most days there are no changes, but once every 10 days or so, certain drinks are replaced by new offerings. With this daily record, it is easy to see that these changes and the placement of the drinks is not random. Worth a look.

I first became aware of this blog through Neil Duckett's blog.


The Health Report - Reliability of Published Research

What if everything we know is wrong - or at least 90 percent of what we think we know.

There was a very interesting topic covered in The Health Report on July 28th concerning the reliability of published research data.

Professor John Ioannidis, Chairman of the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology University of Ioannina Greece and Tufts University Boston, claims that 90 percent of research findings end up being false. There are a number of reasons given in an article he authored as well as the show transcpript and podcast. I highly recommend both.

His major point appears to boil down to the fact that p > 0.5, while generally recognized as being significant, is susceptible to false positives when huge amounts of data are being trolled for any possible associations. Only 10 percent of these associations pan out following further investigation.

Another way to view the same thing is if 10 groups study an association and only one group finds a significant association, that is the paper which gets published.


Beer Company Non-Alcohol Drink Sales

All the major beer companies also have non-alcohol drink units also which are important to the companies. Suntory and Kirin even challenge Coca Cola.

There was an article in today's Nikkei MJ outlining the announced the recent sales and earnings figures. I mention it here to give those interested an idea of the size of these sales. The units are in "oku" yen or hundred million yen and are projected 2008 sales through the end of the year.

Suntory 8,495
Kirin 4,180
Asahi 2,740
Sapporo 378


Menthol Flavored Can Coffee

This strikes me as odd. I associate menthol with cigarettes, although that does not necessarily have to be the case. I am not really sure what the target group is, but Kirin will introduce a new canned coffee flavored with menthol.


Hot Summer 2

Speaking of seasonal foods, one offering I like during Japanese hot weather is cold noodles. Japanese eat noodles as meals in Japan, but a huge bowl of hot noodles will cause you to sweat profusely.

Nice alternatives are cold noodle dishes such as reimen (冷麺), a cold ramen dish, or somen (素麺) which is made from different ingredients and is often served on ice. Reimen has a stronger taste, while somen depends just on the taste of the noodles and the diluted soy sauce based dip. Somen really cannot be beat and I know of Japanese who choose somen for their first meal back in Japan after a long overseas trip.


Hot Summer

Ever since the rainy season ended, it has been very hot here in Japan - even hotter than usual. Not surprisingly some food items sell well when the weather is sweltering. Sports drinks, ice cream and beer come to mind, but other items as well.

One item which comes as a bit of a surprise to me is milk. I love milk and it is cold, but it is also thick. If I am really hot, I usually want to drink something a bit more watery, like a sports drink or water itself, but sales of milk are usually helped quite a bit by hot summer temperatures. Maybe people are smarter than I give them credit for and choose healthy milk over sugary drinks.


Hydrogenized Water

Ito en is coming out next month with a canned water product which touts naturally high levels of hydrogen, which it claims can act as an antioxidant. The water is from Oita Prefecture, and it is not cheap at 4,320 yen per case (24 cans). Itoen has a line up of 12 drinks and 11 supplements which have antioxidant properties.

Interesting idea, but I would like to see some hard evidence first.


The Health Report - Weight Loss Diets

One of the best science programs focusing on health and nutrition is Australia's The Health Report, which is also podcast.

Last week, both of the topics were very interesting. The first topic was concerning a study on various weight loss diets: traditional low fat diet (with calorie restriction), Mediterranean diet (olive oil, nuts and fish), and low carb diet (with no calorie restrictions).

The results for both weight loss and blood fats was the same: low carb > Mediterranean diet > traditional low fat diet.

There are many ways to conduct such trials and comparing diets is very difficult. One interesting aspect was that there was no attempt to standardize calorie intakes. Emphasis was placed on diets which could be maintained as permanent life-styles and the ability to closely monitor the subjects. The result were extremely low dropout rates.

The debate will surely continue, but this one study in the New England Journal of Medicine does support my personal opinion that refined sugars are more of a concern than fats.

Shai I et al. Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet. New England Journal of Medicine, July 17, 2008;359;3:229-241


New Recaldent Gum

Here is an article about a new Recaldent gum which is going to be introduced next month called "Kamu Power" or "Chewing Power".

In addition to the CPP-ACP ingredient in other Recaldent gums, this new offering has a long lasting taste which will allow you to chew more. The company cites studies that show that people are eating more and more soft food and therefore chewing less, even though there are other studies which show that chewing has important connections to saliva production and mental functions.

So in addition to the dental health market, they are trying to target students and other people looking for any mental edge possible.


New Kirin Offerings

Kirin announced a new entry in the "Dai-3-Beer" (3rd beer) category called Kirin Smooth (which will go on sale in early September). Kirin claims it is smooth, light, creamy and will lower in alcohol than other brands (4%). Kirin already makes the best selling "beer" in this category, Nodogoshi.

Beer companies have been trying to counter high taxes for many years, now the high prices of ingredients is making this even more important for beer companies and consumers.

Kirin also announced a new winter season Happoshu (low malt beer) which is lighter tasting for the cold season (actually, I would prefer a richer taste for the cold season, but what do I know). This will go on sale in October.

They also announced a new limited edition beer which uses special hops from Iwate Prefecture and will go on sale in November.

To give you an idea of the prices in the 3 beer categories, the suggested prices will be as follows per 350 ml can:
beer 217 yen
happoshu 161 yen
dai-3 beer 141 yen