Business / Corporate

Textile firm places bet on Japan's ¥1.2 trillion health food market

by Aya Takada


Faced with tightening competition for the textiles it’s been making for almost 100 years, Omikenshi Co. is trying to get into the health-food business, using its cloth-making technology to turn trees into noodles.

The Osaka-based company’s best-selling product is rayon, a fiber made from tree pulp. Using a similar process, Omikenshi is turning the indigestible cellulose into a pulp that’s mixed with konnyaku (devil’s tongue), a yam-like plant grown in Japan. The resulting fiber-rich flour, which the company calls “cell-eat,” contains no gluten, fat and almost no carbohydrates. It has just 60 calories a kilogram (27 calories a pound), compared with 3,680 for wheat.

Omikenshi is betting on a health food market worth ¥1.2 trillion in 2013, more than double the level two decades earlier, according to the Consumer Affairs Agency.

“We’re entering the food business,” said Takashi Asami, manager at Omikenshi’s strategic material development department. “Demand for diet food is strong and looks promising,” while the Japanese textile market is saturated and threatened by rising imports, he said in an interview at Omikenshi’s rayon plant in Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture.

The nation’s rayon production has shrunk about 90 percent since peaking in 1967, according to the Japan Chemical Fibers Association.

There are already noodles made just from konnyaku, also known as voodoo lily because of the plant’s striking flower. But it has been difficult to sell because of its bitter taste, according to Keiichi Ohi, the assistant director for farm export promotion at the Gunma Prefectural Government, the nation’s largest producer of konnyaku. That’s where the wood pulp comes in, improving the flavor and texture, according to Asami.

It’s one more way that Japan’s highly protected agriculture industry is adapting to the winds of change as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to wean farmers off subsidies that cost the government $8 billion this fiscal year. Abe eased food labeling regulations in April, allowing manufacturers to promote health benefits of some products without going through the stringent approval process of the health authority.

By the end of October, companies had taken advantage of the new rules to register 120 so-called functional foods with the Consumer Affairs Agency, including 43 from producers that previously didn’t make food. Nippon Paper Industries Co., Japan’s second-largest paper-maker, is marketing seedlings of a new tea variety it says helps control cholesterol and alleviate eye strain.

Omikenshi’s cell-eat product may help farmers of konnyaku, Japan’s most protected agricultural product. The government imposes tariffs of ¥2,796 a kilogram, or 990 percent, on imports of the plant to protect local growers, most of whom live in Gunma. Japan agreed to reduce the duty by 15 percent under the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The trade pact has spurred farmers to try to find markets abroad.

Gunma’s agriculture exports rose to ¥600 million last fiscal year, triple the initial target, mostly because of demand for the prefecture’s high-fat wagyu beef for global gourmets and its no-fat konnyaku for European health-food eaters, said Ohi.

Omikenshi, the second-largest maker of rayon in Japan, will spend about ¥1 billion on a cell-eat production facility at its textile plant in Kakogawa.

Output will start next year at 30 tons a month, and output can be tripled depending on demand, Asami said. The cloth maker is in talks with food firms to develop and market products using cell-eat, he said.

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