• Kyodo

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Two beerlike nonalcoholic beverages on Wednesday obtained government recognition as a foodstuff with known health benefits, the first such designation for this group of products, despite a warning by an advisory panel that it might lead to more minors consuming alcoholic drinks.

The Consumer Affairs Agency approved Sapporo Breweries Ltd. and Kao Corp.’s application for the “tokuho” recognition, a mark which products can carry on packaging as “foods with specified health uses,” for their respective canned drinks.

The first-ever tokuho nonalcoholic drinks may find a ready market with people who are unable to drink alcohol and drivers who must refrain from consuming alcohol but still want to feel as if they are drinking beer.

The move comes despite an advisory panel last August calling it “inappropriate” to allow beerlike products to bear the tokuho mark as granting health recognition to drinks that look like beer may make youngsters feel it is more acceptable to drink the real thing.

Tokuho is short for “tokutei hokenyou shokuhin,” or foods with special healthy qualities.

The two beverages, Sapporo Breweries’ Sapporo Purasu and Kao’s Healthya Moruto Sutairu (Malt Style), have yet to hit the stores.

The consumer affairs agency gave the green light on condition that the two beverages be clearly labeled “for 20 years and older,” and for stores to require customers to show an ID to verify their age.

Additionally, the agency will inform manufacturers and stores to make sure that these beverages be sold next to alcoholic drinks, so that children will not mistake them for juice and carbonated drinks.

The advisory panel to the agency had voiced concern that youngsters under the age of 20 might buy the tokuho drinks for their healthy image and eventually graduate to buying alcoholic beverages.

“Nonalcoholic drinks, by their nature, tend to lower the hurdle against drinking alcohol in the first place,” said Kaori Yamane, chairman of Shufuren, a consumers’ rights group.

It is a “problem to grant government-guaranteed status such as tokuho, when there is still debate on the issue,” said Yamane.

A survey of 100 consumers conducted by Shufuren in August and September 2012 found that 70 percent had drunk nonalcoholic beverages.

Although some called the drinks “refreshing, without too much sweetness,” 30 percent said they were “anxious that it might lead to underage drinking.”

One respondent reported being lost for an answer when a child once asked: “It’s a beer we children can drink, right?”

Despite the reservations, the agency decided that the two products met the standards of health benefit and safety required for tokuho recognition.

The agency says the advisory panel opinion was only one factor in its deliberation, and the panel’s view has no binding power in the decision-making process.

The consumers affairs agency has designated tokuho status to more than 1,100 products.

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