In an attempt to cash in on consumers’ growing interest in healthy eating, new varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables — each touting enhanced health-boosting properties — are making their way to supermarkets nationwide.
When buying fresh produce, shoppers can now choose tomatoes containing higher levels of lycopene and eggs labeled as having “strengthened eicosa pentaenoic acid,” among a host of other foods promising greater amounts of compounds touted as beneficial.
The health food market, which includes food, beverages, sweets and supplements, was worth ¥1.8 trillion in 2012, according to market research and consultation firm Seed Planning.
With an eye on the growth potential of such products, the government is looking to establish a centralized, unified labeling system that will regulate how they are marketed and provide consumers with a greater understanding of the health benefits advertised.
Here are some questions and answers on the new labeling system expected to emerge in March 2015.
How do manufacturers go about listing the health benefits of food products?
There are two ways. One is highly regulated and the other is very lightly regulated, if at all.
The first way is called “tokuho,” short for “tokutei hokenyo shokuhin,” or “food with specified health uses,” and allows manufacturers to submit individual products to the Consumer Affairs Agency in a strictly regulated process that, if successful, allows the company to market it with a “tokuho” label.
Items bearing the tokuho label are those the agency has judged effective in promoting better health or preventing disease. They include Xylitol gum, said to protect teeth from cavities, fiber-rich drinks advertised as digestive aids, and beverages containing sardine peptide, which supposedly helps to lower high blood pressure.
The second way is unregulated and carried out completely by the food maker. It simply allows companies to “test” for vitamins and minerals in the food being advertised and to list the results on the product labels.
Food makers will still be able to label their goods by these two means after the new labeling system starts next year.
Why does the government want to launch a new labeling system?
The tokuho system is very tightly regulated. Manufacturers must conduct experiments on their products to demonstrate the health benefits and wait for the Consumer Affairs Agency to review it.
“The current system run by the government is costly and time consuming,” says Mitsuru Aoyama, secretary general of Japan Health and Nutrition Food Association.
By diversifying the labeling system and giving a freer hand to manufacturers, the government hopes to encourage more companies in the food industry, particularly small and midsize companies, to develop new products, Aoyama says.
On Friday, the agency presented an outline of its plan for the new labeling system to a group tasked with overseeing its introduction. The plan proposed several rules, such as requiring manufacturers to notify the agency before selling newly labeled products and making information on how they were researched and tested publicly available.
Whatever the rules turn out to be, they are likely to commit manufacturers to printing disclaimers to warn consumers that they are not officially endorsed by the government — a move similar to existing U.S. regulations on dietary supplements. The aim is to prevent individual consumers from holding Washington legally responsible for any side effects while letting consumers try promising products at their own risk.
Manufacturers will also be required to indicate on the labels that the health benefits advertised may not apply to those who are already ill, pregnant or breast-feeding.
What kind of effect will the new labeling system have on agriculture?
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry launched a project last year to promote the research and development of enhanced farm products as well as healthier processed foods.
So far, 18 projects have been selected to receive subsidies, including rice containing high levels of amylose, which helps regulate blood-sugar levels, and onions with more quercetin — a compound that helps the body burn fat.
Local governments are also introducing measures to promote local specialties by playing up their health benefits.
Hokkaido, the country’s largest producer of farm products, introduced its own labeling system in April last year, complete with an original symbol allowing shoppers to identify healthy food produced in the prefecture.
What issues may arise with the new labeling system?
Mari Yamamoto, director of food function division at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, said the new labeling system is necessary because different prefectures and companies use different systems, leaving consumers unable to judge whether individual labels can be trusted.
But she also warned that the new system could end up being misleading if it is too restrictive on the kind of information that can be listed.
According to existing plans, for example, manufacturers will not be allowed to list the effects of ingredients on specific areas of the body.
“The most important thing is for consumers to know that certain food is effective for maintenance and improvement of their health. The labeling should say exactly which part of the body the nutritional ingredients have an effect on, so that they won’t be puzzled as to which food to choose,” she said.
“The government needs to provide all manufacturers clear guidance for a labeling system that has uniformity and consistency, which anyone can understand and follow.”
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