Health-conscious consumers are driving demand for strains of vegetables with enhanced nutritional qualities, and growers are eager to comply.
So-called “functional vegetables” can command higher prices than ordinary strains, and farmers are trying to increase the range of these foods they offer.
Dole Japan Inc. has launched sales nationwide of broccoli containing three times the amount of antidotal and antioxidant elements that are found in conventional broccoli.
Functional broccoli is “gradually arousing attention, especially from health-conscious elderly people,” said a Dole official recently, speaking at a Tokyu Store outlet in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. The supermarket sells the broccoli for ¥398 apiece.
“We have already released functional grape tomatoes and will expand our product lineup,” the official said, referring to the popular salad ingredient that is technically a fruit.
The functional variety of vegetables such as carrots and bell peppers are richer in nutrients than their standard counterparts. Also, their antioxidant properties are considered effective in helping to prevent some diseases.
Takii & Co. in Kyoto is a major supplier of seeds of functional vegetables, offering 13 kinds under the Phyto Rich brand to professional and weekend growers.
Among them are carrots marketed as Kyo Kurenai, which have a balanced content of the antioxidants lycopene and carotene.
Others include the mild-tasting “kodomo piman” (bell peppers for children), which contain twice the normal amount of carotene, and “benihoshi” purple-stemmed Japanese “mizuna” greens, which have at least 10 times the amount of anthocyanin found in the regular plant — a substance considered effective in preventing arterial hardening.
Takii, which has more than 300,000 varieties of seeds, takes at least 10 years to develop a new variety.
While seeds for tasty, long-life or high-yield vegetables used to be in strong demand, nutritional components have become a new yardstick for selection these days, a Takii official said.
In a related development, a research team from the agricultural department at Tamagawa University is developing functional vegetables by means of light-emitting diode technology.
It has already developed types of lettuce containing 2.6 times more vitamins and other antioxidant components, selling them at retailers such as department stores for around ¥200 each through its project partner Nishimatsu Construction Co.
The water-culture operation in a facility on the university’s campus in Machida, Tokyo, uses exposure to different types of LEDs to enhance particular attributes of the produce.
For example, red LEDs increase the sweetness and vitamin content of leaf lettuces while blue light strengthens the plants’ antioxidants.
By adjusting the lighting, the company can therefore alter the taste and nutritional value of vegetables based on consumer needs.
The sensor-controlled facility automatically monitors the vegetables, and moreover the entire process takes place without the use of agricultural chemicals. The process is also speedy: Growing the plants under LED light enables harvesting in as little as two weeks.
The research team has “delicate know-how in changing the taste and nutritional content of each vegetable by adjusting the color and irradiation time of light,” said professor Hiroyuki Watanabe.
Labeling regulations are expected to be eased in the coming months, allowing producers of functional vegetables to outline on the packaging just what effect the contents may have on the consumer.
It’s a change that may help fuel greater interest in functional foods among Japan’s health-conscious consumers.