Kirin Beverage Co.’s hit beverage Mets Cola has gained Consumer Affairs Agency recognition as “tokuho,” which is short for “tokutei hokenyou shokuhin,” or foods with special healthy qualities.
Cola drinks are generally not believed to contribute to good health, but consumers have snapped up Mets Cola because of its official distinction.
Following are questions and answers regarding the tokuho status and its bona fides:
What is the origin of the tokuho status?
The health ministry began in 1991 attaching tokuho status to certain foods and drinks to promote their healthy qualities, including ingredients that are high in fiber, good for digestion or help slow tooth decay.
By cluing consumers in to food items that promote health, the government hoped to also mitigate the nation’s future health insurance burden, said Akira Yabuki, a director at the Japan Health & Nutrition Food Association, which is run with funds pooled from member companies — mostly food and drink makers.
Since September 2009, when the Consumer Affairs Agency was created under the health ministry, the agency has taken over the role of granting tokuho status.
How has the tokuho product market been growing?
Products given the status have seen a consistent increase, reaching 1,000 in May.
Included among them are Lotte Co.’s Xylitol gum, which boasts the ability to protect teeth from cavities, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co.’s fiber-rich drink Fibe-Mini, which aids digestive organs, as well as yogurts and many kinds of oolong and green teas.
Tokuho-status product sales amounted to ¥679.8 billion in 2007, but have declined since then and stood at ¥517.5 billion in 2011, according to the association, which compiles data in odd-numbered years.
The sales decline can be attributed in part to the 2008 financial crisis as well as product development that was put on hold because the Consumer Affairs Agency was planning to change the rules on tokuho recognition, Yabuki said.
With new rules in place, the development of tokuho products has gotten back into full swing, he said.
How is tokuho status earned?
To obtain the status, food and drink makers must conduct various experiments to demonstrate the healthy effects of their products. Afterward, the Consumer Affairs Agency must review the results of these tests and issue its judgment accordingly.
If the product experiment documents pass muster, the manufacturers will be authorized to attach the tokuho designation and list the specific health-supporting ingredients on their labels, Yabuki said.
What experiments are required?
The manufacturers have to test their products on individuals.
In the case of Mets Cola, Kirin Beverage divided 82 people with no significant health problems into two groups. One was served Mets Cola, which contains indigestible dextrin — a nutrient that restricts the rise in body fat after a meal — while the other group drank cola that did not contain the substance for a day, Kirin Beverage spokesman Mitsutake Matano said.
A week later the two groups reversed roles for a day.
Afterward, the subjects were tested for the density of fat in their blood, Matano said.
Overconsumption was also gauged for any harmful effects.
For example, manufacturers conducted experiments in which people consumed triple the amounts of food or drinks to determine if such activities posed damage to health, Yabuki said.
“Tokuho products can be useful in maintaining your health, but that may not be the case if one binge eats and drinks,” Yabuki said.
The Consumer Affairs Agency reportedly issued Suntory Holdings Ltd. a warning to halt a TV commercial pushing Suntory’s black oolong tea because the ad could mislead consumers into believing they did not have to be careful about what they ate as long as they drank the company’s product.
What nutrients will the Consumer Affairs Agency let makers boast on their products as promoting health?
Diacylglycerol and other nutrients that make it difficult for fat to be stored in the body can be listed on product labels, according to the website of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health.
Other nutrients listed include bifidobacteria, chitosan and L-arabinose, which can lower blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.
The Mets Cola label says its indigestible dextrin restricts absorption of fat and increases the excretion of fat.
The Consumer Affairs Agency does not disclose the specific components, only the products granted tokuho recognition, agency official Noriko Yokota said. She added, however, that the information on the metro government’s website is correct.
How popular is Mets Cola?
Between April 24, when Kirin Beverage began selling 480-milliter bottles, and the end of May, 1.5 million cases, or 36 million bottles, were sold, company spokesman Mitsutake Matano said.
This compares with the 30 million cases of Pepsi cola sold last year, of which 20.95 million were the zero-calorie Pepsi Nex, said Midori Takahashi, a spokeswoman at Suntory Holdings Ltd., the parent of Nihon Pepsi Cola Ltd.
A case basically can mean 24 250-ml cans or 6 2-liter bottles.
Kirin Beverage has sold Kirin Cola only in vending machines since June 2010. It sells no other kinds of cola, and the product is nowhere near comparable with Mets Cola, Matano said.
Why is Mets Cola doing so well?
Cola drinks in general are popular worldwide, even if they generally are not associated with the promotion of health.
Throwing in the tokuho component only lends to the boom, Yabuki said.
“People have the impression that cola has lots of sugar, and thus tokuho cola has had a big impact on consumers,” he said.
The TV commercial for Mets Cola using characters from the popular boxing “anime” series “Ashita no Jo” also gives the product added punch, he said.
How will future tokuho products evolve?
Tokuho status has been granted to many kinds of tea, which even before such designation attracted health-conscious consumers, Yabuki said.
“I expect diet-related tokuho products will continue to grow. Also, makers will probably take new directions, including foods and drinks that promote healthy skin,” he said.
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