Dear Alice,
I love desserts of all kinds, but eating my way through the cake shops of Japan is wreaking havoc on my waistline. When I mentioned this to a Japanese friend, she said I need to wean myself off crepes and cream puffs and opt instead for
wagashi — traditional Japanese confections. I say sweets are sweets, but she claims the Japanese variety is better for you. How the heck can that be? And what’s in wagashi anyway? I can’t read the labels.
Tina S., Wakayama Prefecture

Dear Tina,
You have my sympathy: It’s so hard to get the skinny on what’s making us fat. Even if you read Japanese, many foods in Japan don’t carry any sort of nutritional information. That’s because eiyō seibun hyōji (nutritional labeling) is voluntary, unless a product makes a specific nutritional claim such as “high in calcium.”

I knew this, but still decided to start my research in my local supermarket. My plan was to find two comparable treats, one Western and one Japanese, and see how they measure up in terms of nutrition. I went through the store methodically, upending every manjū and daifuku in sight, but couldn’t turn up a single wagashi with full nutritional labeling.

Fortunately, Japanese law does require ingredient labeling, and therein lies the answer to your question. I had a pretty good inkling your friend was basing her argument on what’s in wagashi (beans, sweet potatoes, seaweed, etc.), as well as what ain’t (eggs, butter and cream), but to get a professional opinion, I took your question to the Japan Wagashi Association.

“Wagashi are considered more healthful because they are made entirely from plant-based ingredients,” executive director Mitsuo Yabu told me in an interview in the association’s office in Tokyo. “There are some exceptions, but generally wagashi don’t include animal products. This means they don’t contain cholesterol and are far lower in fat than Western-style sweets.”

There are thousands of different varieties of wagashi, but most draw from a common list of nourishing plant-based ingredients, including rice, flour, sweet potatoes, beans, chestnuts, sugar and seaweed. “The adzuki bean, in particular, is a highly nutritious food,” Yabu noted. “In addition to being a good source of protein and fiber, adzuki beans contain a wealth of antioxidants that contribute to good health.”

Yabu steered me to scientific articles that show that adzuki beans contain unusually high concentrations of catechin, anthocyanidin and polyphenols. You often hear red wine touted for its polyphenol content, but adzuki beans are actually a better source, even when processed into an, the sweet paste used in so many wagashi. And there is growing evidence that polyphenols play a role in the prevention of all sorts of diseases, including diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.

Micronutrients are very cool, but I still thought it would be useful to make a comparison of representative Japanese and Western products on the macronutrient level. Since I couldn’t find that data on labels, I went to the library and sweet-talked a librarian into helping me. She steered me to a very useful book called “Mainichi no Shokuji no Karorī Gaido” (“Guide to Calorie Content of Everyday Foods”), which provides detailed nutritional information on hundreds of foods commonly consumed in Japan, including home-cooking as well as packaged foods, restaurant meals and convenience-store offerings. It’s all in Japanese, but the photos make it easy to find the food you’re looking for.

First I looked up yokan, the dark-colored confection in the photo accompanying today’s column. I selected it because it’s one of the more popular traditional sweets and is sold all over Japan. And because it travels well, it’s available in many other countries as well. Yokan is made from adzuki beans, sugar and agar agar, a natural gelling agent made from seaweed. So here’s the data: A 70-gram slice of yokan contains 203 calories, 0.8 grams of fat (from the beans) and no cholesterol. It has 2.1 grams of fiber and 2.5 grams of protein.

Compare that to ichigo shōto kēki (strawberry shortcake), that standard of Western-style cake shops in Japan. It’s a yellow sponge cake layered with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. According to the calorie guide, a typical wedge of this cake contains 292 calories, 119 mg of cholesterol and a whopping 22.1 grams of fat. It has 0.9 grams of fiber and 3.3 grams of protein.

If you’re selecting your snacks purely on the basis of health, yokan is clearly the way to go. But there’s room in a healthy diet for any food as long as if you follow the mantra of “hodohodo ni” (“everything in moderation”). And keep in mind that while wagashi may have a generally healthier profile than yōgashi (Western sweets), it’s sometimes hard to tell which you’re dealing with. There’s a whole category of treats that borrow freely from both traditions, such as dorayaki pancakes filled with whipped cream instead of the usual bean filling, and Western-style cakes made with green tea and adzuki beans.

These wayō secchu (East-West hybrid) sweets are nothing new. In 1874, the Kimuraya bakery, which is still in business in Tokyo’s Ginza district, created a lasting hit when they filled yeasty bread rolls with bean paste. In fact, what we think of today as traditional Japanese sweets have been subject to foreign influence for many centuries, first from China and later from the earliest European contact.

Yokan, for example, derives from an ancient Chinese recipe for lamb stew. When the dish came to Japan, Zen monks substituted beans for the lamb because they were prohibited from eating meat.

Yabu advised looking beyond nutrition to enjoy the many pleasures of wagashi. “It’s fun to try different products, many of which are only available in certain parts of the country or during specific seasons, and to appreciate how wagashi appeal to all the senses, with beautiful shapes and colors, interesting textures, delicate tastes and even poetic names.”

For more information on this topic, including the calorie guide mentioned above, please visit my new blog at alicegordenker.wordpress.com. For ongoing coverage of Japanese sweets, check out wagashichronicles.blogspot.com/ which has great photos as well as recipes.

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