Going Into Japan’s Latest Food Trends

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Nishida Masanao, director of Food Japan, gives his insight on these in an exclusive pre-interview with APFI leading up to Food Japan 2017.

Globalisation and the increasingly interconnectedness of the world through the internet are surely bringing overseas cultures and food right to our doorstep. Not only can we find country-specific restaurants with authentic cuisine (i.e. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Italian, American) just down the road in any city, but we are also easily exposed to information about these cuisines via the internet or the rise of social media that often feature these in mouth-watering images or videos.


Unique Offerings Increase Appeal


Assorted kit kat flavours

Japan is one such country whose food and beverages are already popular worldwide—with more potential for further growth. In fact, according to a 2016 survey by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the total number of Japanese restaurants in all markets outside Japan was nearly 89,000 as of July 2015. This figure had risen considerably from the 55,000 counted in 2013, and definitely in present year 2017 this number would have grown.

Nishida Masanao, director of Food Japan, a food and beverage trade exhibition showcasing Japanese ingredients, prefecture specialities and food technologies that is held annually in Singapore, explained the appeal of Japanese food internationally with the media and tourism.

“A lot of international consumers are easily exposed to Japanese culture and foods through television programs, anime (Japanese animation), dramas, and the like. A second and probably more driving factor is the increase in tourist interest in Japan. People understand that the food is unique, rich in history and oishii (delicious); taking photos of these and sharing on their social media further drives interest of other consumers to Japanese food,” he said.

In addition, the appeal of food souvenirs that tourists often buy home for friends and family further enhances this interest. These can include the uniquely flavoured Kit Kat chocolate, Pocky snacks, or even Tokyo Banana.

Japanese food and beverages are also appealing to international consumers because they can be so diverse, depending on where they are from.

With sake, for instance, there are over two thousand breweries throughout Japan, informed Mr Nishida. “The climate, practices, or even ingredients for sake can differ when it is made in the North and South of Japan, resulting in entirely different tastes. These factors not only affect sake, but other food and beverages as well. So you can see a lot of consumers who are willing to travel to try these different tastes.”


The Existing Over The New


But like the rest of the world, Japan is also being influenced by the health and wellness trend that is creeping into almost every consumer’s life. According to Mr Nishida, eight percent of adults in Japan are diabetic—a high percentage, and as consumers become more aware of the need to maintain individual health, they look for healthier ingredients or food with healthier claims, such as gluten-free, sugarless, and natural.

Rather than scramble to look for new ingredients though, Japanese food manufacturers are looking for ways to innovate with existing ingredients and food to make them more suitable to the changing consumer demands and tastes.

“The quality of Japanese ingredients is already high and acceptable by consumers since these are already backed up by hundreds of years of history and scientific proof in terms of benefits, but how you use these makes all the difference,” Mr Nishida proclaimed.

Fermented Japanese foods are one example. In recent years, fermented foods have become popular among consumers due to increasing research on their health benefits and hence are perceived positively.

The classic natto, a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans, has thus become more known among consumers, but its taste, smell and texture is not always to everybody’s liking, especially for international consumers who may not be used to such texture. To not deter consumers from eating or even trying this healthy food, Japanese manufacturers have worked on creating a ‘less textured’ natto that takes away the ‘disgusting’ factor from this food, as well as its reputable smell, Mr Nishida said.

Amazake, a traditional sweet, low- or non-alcohol Japanese drink made from fermented rice, is also another increasingly popular favourite among consumers. Its many health benefits such as its vitamin and mineral content to promote skin and hair growth as well as aid weight loss allow it to be positioned as a beauty drink particularly for women.

In addition to these, Japanese food manufacturers are also looking to create new fusion foods that mix an international cuisine with a traditional Japanese food. These will be featured in the upcoming Food Japan, Mr Nishida informs, and one example will be the ‘bak kut teh’ ramen, which would combine the classic pork rib and pork broth from Singapore and Malaysia with Japan’s famous noodles.

Also, with the increasing demand for convenience from consumers, manufacturers are also moving towards single-serve packaging. These allow for easy consumption of food and beverages while on-the-go, and at smaller servings, consumers are asking for higher quality products. Manufacturers can thus keep retail prices the same with these smaller but more nutritious servings.


Stepping Up In Senior Care


In addition to functional food and healthier foods, another focus of Japanese manufacturers today is also in senior care. The country has a very mature ageing population, said Mr Nishida, having been ‘ageing’ for a longer period of time than any of its regional neighbours like Taiwan, Korea or even Singapore.

As of 2015, the proportion of elderly in the country’s population was recorded at 26.6 percent—more than one in four people are elderly. This figure is expected to increase, such that one in three Japanese will be elderly come 2036.

As such, opportunities in this market lie in making food and beverages tasteful and easier to consume for seniors. One example of this is ‘drinking jelly’, cites Mr Nishida. A common problem for elderly is their dental health, due to weaker teeth or even fewer teeth; chewing becomes harder for them. They therefore require softer foods and drinkable products.

Drinking jelly caters to these requirements, allowing them to easily swallow these tasteful products and at the same time can be tailored to help seniors meet their daily nutritional intake. “Drinking jelly can even be used to replace hospital meals (if elderly cannot chew), or even IV drips so seniors can still have an oishii experience.”

Even the government is advocating food manufacturers to cater more products specifically for this population, through the establishment of ‘Mastication-Friendly Food’ labelling in the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) in 2016. This standard permits the use of a JAS mark on packages of nursing-care food (Smile Care Food).

Mastication-friendly food are defined as processed food that requires less chewing compared to regular foods and that displays modified characteristics, consistency, or other content in that purpose, and that excludes baby food. There are four categories under this standard, namely: Easy-to-chew foods, Crushable-with-gums foods, Crushable-with-tongue food, and No-chew foods.

Despite still being a relatively new initiative, it is likely that demand for such labelling or food will surely increase, providing ample opportunities for food manufacturers to enter this market. And with regional neighbours’ ageing populations on the rise too, it is likely potential for such food catered specially to seniors would reach beyond Japan.