How many people would believe a doctor who says eating two packages of natto fermented soybeans every day helps you lose weight?
A responsible doctor would never make such a claim. But when popular TV show host Masaaki Sakai said just that in early January, citing academic findings and comments from “experts,” while guest commentators “oohed” and “aahed” at data that reported remarkable weight losses, tens of thousands of viewers believed it. The sticky, smelly stuff began to fly off store shelves nationwide, prompting two major natto makers to issue apologies for not keeping up with demand.
Then came the real shocker. A couple of weeks later, the Osaka-based Kansai Telecasting Corp., which produces the popular health and entertainment show “Hakkutsu! Aruaru Daijiten II (Encyclopedia of Living II)” announced that the show’s producers had faked the test results and altered experts’ comments to make out that natto was a slimming product. In the days that followed, it was exposed in other media that the show had a history of making things up. It had, for example, claimed that lettuce induced sleep, miso soup helped weight loss and wasabi made you younger.
The natto scandal sent shock waves through the TV industry and academia because of the ridiculous nature of the fabrications involved, with not a little help from “specialists” who lent authority to whatever health tips the show offered. But even without such explicit lies, some observers point out the ills of programs like “Hakkutsu,” which mix entertainment with medicine, noting that they often do more harm than good to some people’s health.
Day in and day out, TV variety shows feature a vegetable, fish or fruit per episode, highlighting their “newly-discovered” benefits, whether that be their role in lowering cholesterol, blood sugar levels or some other harmful condition.
Such “health information” TV shows have sparked short-lived booms in certain foods, including cocoa in around 1996, nigari (bittern used to make tofu firm) in around 2003, and kanten (agar) in 2005, according to Kuniko Takahashi, professor of home economics at Gunma University, who has monitored the programs and challenged their scientific value.
Takahashi said that, the media, especially on TV, are often involved in “food faddism,” exaggerating positive or negative effects of certain foods and nutrients on one’s health or illnesses.
She said that “not a few mistakes, contradictions, exaggerations and misinterpretations of academic papers” are evident in the shows. Agar, for example, is one of the foods that once disappeared from the shelves after Hakkutsu said in June 2005 that it was “a foodstuff that would solve a wide variety of health problems for contemporary people.” Then it said that agar helped diabetics lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure, lose weight and shed body fat.
But when Takahashi examined the paper cited in the show, titled “Effects of agar (kanten) diet on obese patients with impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes,” published in the British journal called Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism in January 2005, she found figures improved not only among people who took agar but also among those who did not.
“I have talked to doctors who complain that their patients listen more to information aimed at the general audience through the TV screen, rather than doctors right in front of them who have medical data specific to them,” Takahashi said.
Observers also point out that information on TV is not only too general but often biased. Tsutomu Wada, a freelance medical journalist who once worked for public broadcaster NHK, says TV programming is often influenced by PR campaigns for certain products.
“Whether food or not, when products are featured on TV, PR agencies are most likely to be behind each one of them,” Wada said. “When a news program picks up a popular cosmetics product, for example, there must be a PR campaign at work. Or in a program where a TV celebrity takes a walk around a subway station and stumbles upon a nice restaurant or ramen shop, the chances are that some money is involved. The relationship is not so much between the TV networks and the PR agencies, but it sometimes occurs between individual TV producers/directors and the agencies. TV shows are viewed as a great advertising vehicle.”
Even a cursory look at some of the programs is enough to raise questions. On Feb. 6, a popular afternoon TV show called “Omoikkiri Terebi,” aired five times a week on the Nippon Television Network, ran a segment on “protecting your throat.” The show is known for having inspired several past food fads.
Monta Mino, the charismatic TV celebrity who serves as the show’s host, called attention to a relatively unknown green tea ingredient that he said would “prevent people from colds and hay fever.” The ingredient, mechiru-ka katekin (methylated catechin), was found to be digested six times more slowly than regular catechin, he declared, remaining in the body that much longer. Then he mentioned that a tea variety called benifuuki contained a high amount of methylated catechin, holding up a chart that compared the level contained in benifuuki and two other varieties. The data was attributed to Japan’s National Institute of Vegetable and Tea Science.
“So, the sensei [referring to Dr. Eita Matsubara] says benifuuki is the best,” Mino said. “Sensei, is the tea named benifuuki available?”
Matsubara, who is dubbed the program’s “home doctor,” chimed in: “You can find the name benifuuki printed on the back of tea bags.”
The segment ended there, while Mino, Matsubara and four guest commentators sitting in the studio sipped a cup of benifuuki tea each. There was no talk of how how many cups a day should be consumed or how it should be served.
The next day, Feb. 7, I visited a couple of supermarkets to see if they carried tea leaves called benifuuki. I couldn’t find any, but instead found a bunch of PET-bottle drinks named Benifuuki Ryokucha (green tea), marketed by major beverage maker Asahi Soft Drinks Co. The product says on its green label that it “contains 17 mg of methylated catechin.” But it refrains from making any statement on hay fever or cold prevention — it merely bears a pink sticker that says: “The drinkable springtime remedy.”
The drink went on sale in retail shops in Tokyo and 10 other prefectures on Feb. 7 — the day after the “Omoikkiri” show turned a previously obscure tea variety into a household name.
Tomohiro Sata, spokesman at Asahi Soft Drinks, said that the product is “not a health drink” — just one of the company’s several green-tea products. When asked whether or not the product’s launch was timed to coincide with the TV show, he responded that there was no connection.
He did confirm that on Jan. 24 the company started taking orders over the phone and the Internet for the tea, which was jointly developed with the semigovernmental research institute cited in the TV program.
Asked if there was any connection, NTV’s public relations department replied in the negative, saying in writing to The Japan Times that the Feb. 6 show introduced “benifuuki in general,” not “Asahi Soft Drinks Co.’s Benifuuki Ryokucha.”
Concerning the relationship between the program’s content and sales of health foods in general, the network said that it asks retailers of such foods not to promote their products using the show’s name, and when they learn of abuses of the show’s name in sales promotions, they contact the businesses asking them not to.
Even with such measures, though, the ubiquitous, albeit brief mentions of health foods and food ingredients on television seem to have greatly changed the way we look at food. Many of us no longer consume food just for what it is. We are on the look out for its health benefits.
“It’s distorted,” fumes Gunma University’s Takahashi. “If we had lived in a time when medicine was underdeveloped, it could have been understandable. But we live in the 21st century. And yet we are expecting food to work like drugs do.”‘