A one-time food-additives salesman and chemist is using his insider information to warn people about the dangers lurking in the prepared-food sections at supermarkets and convenience stores.
“See this nice boxed meal? This one has 20 to 30” additives, Tsukasa Abe, 54, who once helped engineer cheaper, longer-lasting food, told an audience recently in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. “This 260 yen convenience store sandwich is worth a Nobel prize for its preservation technology.”
Reiko Iino, 58, said she was shocked to hear Abe say in the May food safety seminar that convenience store “onigiri” rice balls not only have additives, but there may be up to 10 of them mixed in. They include the preservative glycin, flavoring agents, such as amino acids that give the rice a sweet taste, and emulsifiers to retain luster.
“Now I understand why you can still eat rice balls left in the summer heat for a few days,” Iino said. “It’s scary.”
In an interview after the seminar, Abe said, “Many Japanese blindly consume what’s in a shop, without knowing some manufacturers don’t even eat their own products. “People think it’s OK because it’s made by a top manufacturer, or because it’s sold by a major supermarket.”
In the 1980s, Abe was a top salesman at a food-additives trading firm. At the end of last year, he published “Shokuhin no Uragawa (“The Far Side of Foodstuffs”). It has become a best-seller, with 450,000 copies printed so far.
Abe now works for a firm in Kitakyushu that produces natural unprocessed salt.
Although all additives in Japan are supposed to be government approved, Abe said he is skeptical of their safety, especially when several are combined or they are consumed over a long time.
And while one health ministry official claimed its safety tests for additives are “appropriate and sufficient,” Abe believes the ministry is not doing its job properly.
“The ministry’s safety tests are carried out like this: If 100 grams of an additive kill a mouse, they allow just 1 gram for a human,” he said, adding there is almost no testing done on combinations of additives or their prolonged consumption.
Abe said when he first started at the trading firm, he was surprised to discover that so many additives were being used in food. But as a chemistry graduate, he soon became fascinated in developing cheaper food products that had long shelf lives.
When a well-established manufacturer of “kamaboko” steamed fish cake told him supermarkets said the products were too expensive, Abe recommended starting with frozen fish paste and adding synthetic seasoning and hydrolyzed protein to cut the costs while retaining the taste.
But being a traditionalist, the owner resisted. Finally, Abe pressed the right button.
“If you don’t make your business simpler and more lucrative, your son will never take it over,” he said, knowing this would strike home in a traditional family-run business.
“At the time, I believed I contributed to the modernization and rationalization of Japan’s food industry. But I was in fact helping to destroy a traditional food culture.”
His turning point was a blinding realization that hit him at his daughter’s birthday party.
Abe, who typically worked late into the night, arrived home early for the party to find the table loaded with food. He popped a meatball in his mouth and froze. It was one of his products.
“The meat was gooey, watery and tasteless. But it was cheap, and it was beef — at a time when beef was very expensive,” he said. “The maker had asked how I could make it edible” while cutting the cost.
He had increased the volume of the meatballs by adding structural soy protein. Large amounts of beef extract and artificial flavoring were added to improve the taste and processed starch improved its texture.
The binding agent polyphosphate sodium and glycerin fatty acid ester were added to make it easy to process. The finishing touches were coloring to make it look better and a pH adjuster to make it last longer.
“In the end, they were just lumps of additives,” Abe said.
But housewives were happy because they were only 100 yen a package and their kids loved them.
However, when he saw his own daughter eating them, he panicked. He suddenly realized the potential consequences of what he was doing.
He recalled the apprehensions voiced by his colleagues and clients about the food. One was a pickle maker who would not eat his own pickles because they were made from old, brown vegetables, bleached to look fresh.
Abe quit his job the next day. And his meatballs are no longer being sold. But there is still countless problematic fare.
“For example, there’s no milk in ‘coffee fresh’ coffee cream. It’s made of vegetable oil, water and about 10 additives. It’s milklike salad oil.”
While salads in plastic packs look healthy, he said many are soaked in pools of disinfectant, with some dipped in pH adjusters to make them crunchier.
Companies must list additives on packaging, but Abe warns there may still be extra ingredients in a product that aren’t declared. He cited as an example barbecue sauce in which soy sauce is part of the ingredients. If the soy sauce contains additives, they don’t have to be on the label.
While people may be tempted to fault the manufacturers, Abe said consumers are also to blame.
“Japanese are the most picky consumers in the world. Food must be readily available, look immaculate, last a long time and be inexpensive. If a slight defect is found in one of 5,000 ‘bento’ (boxed meals), the whole lot must be recalled,” he said. “Makers are forced to use additives to fulfill these requirements.”
While the negative effects of many additives on human health have not been proven, Abe pointed to a disturbing Nishinippon Shimbun article, published on March 19, 2004, about pigs that were fed convenience store food.
The article said a pig farmer in Fukuoka Prefecture in 2002 fed 25 pregnant pigs only convenience-store bento and rice balls — free because they had passed their best-by dates — for most of their 114-day gestations. All of the pigs had either stillborn births or the piglets had birth defects.
Hiroshi Yamada, a writer who specializes in food safety, said the effects of additives may have shown up sooner in the pigs than in humans, as their life span is shorter.
“I think we should take this as a warning. If pigs have stillbirths, I wouldn’t find it strange then if humans became at least infertile or something similar,” he said.
The major convenience stores claimed they were working hard to decrease additives in their products, but only Seven-Eleven Japan Co. would give specifics.
Nobuyuki Miyaji of Seven-Eleven said the company has not used preservatives and artificial coloring in the firm’s food line since 2001.
However, he said he did not believe that additives caused the dead and deformed piglets in Fukuoka.
“If people eat the same food all the time, they are bound to get sick — not just from a convenience store, any food,” Miyaji said.
Abe said he wished consumers, who can pressure manufacturers to change the way food is prepared, don’t exert their power.
“It’s simple. Start by buying food with the least degree of processing as possible. Look at the labels and don’t buy things with ingredients you don’t have in your kitchen,” he said.
“It’s for your health.”