Category Archives: Food Additives

Food Industry & Supermarkets

Much has happened since the first supermarkets opened in Japan. The first is said to be Kinokuniya in Tokyo (1953), followed by Maruwa in Kita-Kyushu (1956). The initial reaction was that they would sell cheap and bad food, with cynics sneering at the katakana name, “suupa” (short for super). The expansion of the country’s transportation network made it possible to create high growth and massive profits were made.

The other factor behind the success that should not be forgotten was the appearance of artificial food additives. Bread with up to 30 food additives became the norm, and could be sold cheaply because of its long shelf-life. Products could also be shipped and sold nation-wide. In 1962, before the supermarket boom, Japan had 14,823 bakeries. The industry was soon ruled by the giant company Yamazaki Baking, and the number of bakeries dwindled to 4190 by 1971.

Of course this kind of trend did not just happen to the bakeries. Japan’s Fair Trade Commission has released data indicating that three major companies now dominate all sectors in a way that we can call oligopoly control. For frozen food, the largest three control 59.7% (Nichirei alone controls 32.8%), instant noodles 61.3% (Sanyo 31.3%), instant coffee 94.8 (Nestle 67.7%), whiskey 94.7% (Suntory 64.3%), and soy sauce 43.0% (Kikkoman 31.2%). Over half a century since the trend of industrial production with food additives made highly processed food possible, supermarkets continue to sell these items in large quantities. There is no doubt that our children’s health is increasingly under threat.

By Amagasa Keisuke, CUJ

June  12, 2018

Food Additives: MSG, Flavour Enhancers Not Properly Labelled In Japan

Comparing food labels used in Japan and in other countries reveals that many ingredients are not properly listed by Japanese food companies. Here, we take a look at flavour enhancers and food oils.

Processed foods often contain a type of chemicals known as “flavour enhancers” that are not explained on Japanese food labels. In Europe, they are listed as E621 (Monosodium glutamate) and so on. We looked at South Korean food labels and found that they list each chemical separately, just like in Europe, while they are all listed under one simple term in Japan. This term just means “amino acid etc” or “amino acid group” and also another term is used that means “yeast extract” which is very confusing for consumers.

In a type of sauce called Hondashi made by Ajinomoto Co., which is flavoured by katsuo (Shipjack tuna) according to the Japanese label, the South Korean label has much more detailed information. In Korean, it lists the following additives and flavour enhancers (European food additive number in brackets):

Monosodium L-Glutamate (E621)
Disodium 5′-Ribonucleotides (E635)
Succinic Acid (E363) or possibly Sodium Succinate

A sesame dressing made by Mizkan Co. is also better labelled in South Korea, where the list of ingredients includes both E621 and E635, as well as several other food additives, like Tamarind gum and Xanthan gum, that are not listed on the Japanese label. Also, the Korean label clearly indicates that the amount of sesame in the dressing is 9%, with “natural sesame flavour” only 0.1% of the total!

A yakitori sauce made by Moranbong Co. was labelled very differently in South Korean compared to Japan. For example, the Korean label tells consumers that the product contains MSG (E 621) and other additives.

Even chocolate products are labelled in different ways: Lotte Co. makes a type of almond chocolate in its Urawa factory in Chiba, that is sold both in Japan and in South Korea. But in South Korea, the label clearly tells consumers that 25% of the product is almonds. The Korean label also lists each food oil that is used (Palm oil, Canola oil, Sunflower oil) while the Japanese label only lists “vegetable oil” without any details. As most people know, cheap chocolate contains a lot of lecithin. In Korean, Soy lecithin (E322) is clearly listed. In addition, the Korean label reveals that Shellack (E904), a glazing agent, is used, probably to coat the almonds, as well as Vanilla flavouring, which is not specified on the Japanese list of ingredients.

As these examples show, food labels in Japan are not as consumer friendly as in other countries, and identical products from the same food company are much better labelled abroad.

(Image courtesy of Seikatsu Club that provided the data)

Food Additives: You Think You Know But Really You Don’t

CUJ and other groups held a joint seminar about food additives at Shufuren in Tokyo on February 28, 2012. Invited speaker Nakamura Mikio made a detailed presentation about the problems, with a focus on recent developments.

Japan has recently been forced to permit some 70 new food additives that are used in the US and Europe, or face the usual trade related wrath of food exporting countries. That means 423 food additives are now allowed in Japan as of December 27, 2011. Some 350 food additives have been used for a long time, with very few ones approved since the late 1960s.

Nakamura Mikio revealed that over 3 million tons of food additives are now used annually in Japan. That means each Japanese consumer on average eats about 25 kilograms of food additives each year.

The largest share is artificial flavouring and synthetic seasoning products, that amount to over 2.5 million tons. This includes the controversial class of additives that are loosely labelled as アミノ酸 など (amino acids etc.) in Japan. 107,000 tons of synthetic preservatives are used while colouring products add up to about 23,000 tons.

Azo colours, for example, were approved in December 1970, and were among the first products that Consumers Union of Japan campaigned against back in the 1970s!

What most people don’t realize is that over the past five years, a number of genetically modified food additives are permitted. They often fall under the “amino acids etc.” labelling requirement, thus consumers cannot easily avoid them. These include Amylase, Chymosin, and Riboflavin (Vitamin B2). Aspartame, the controversial artificial sweetener, is also made with biotechnology, and L-phenylanaline, L-glutamine, and other additives as well, with no labelling requirements. Here is information in English about food additives and GM microorganisms.

Nakamura Mikio noted that Japan no longer produces even one kilo of vitamins – all of it is imported. For example, China now produces 80-85% of the world supply of Vitamin C. He wondered if it really is OK that Japan does not have a single factory that can make such an important product.

The process to approve new food additives includes a way for consumers and the general public to send in comments. We encourage everyone to participate in this work. Consumers Union of Japan is also working for better food labelling to make sure that consumers can choose. We have a right to know what we are eating!

By Martin J. Frid, CUJ

Lecture Series: Consumers’ Perspective on the TPP Problem

Consumers Union of Japan and other organizations have jointly started a lecture series to discuss the problems with free trade agreements from the consumers’ perspective.

During the APEC meeting in the fall of 2011, the Noda Administration expressed that Japan will participate in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Mass media made it appear as if only farm groups are opposed to trade liberalization, belittling the difficulties while emphasizing the potential economic benefits. It seems that there are many people who do not understand what kind of influence the TPP will have over citizens’ daily lives, also among ordinary consumers. Consequently, we started this lecture series with the theme “Food safety is being threatened.” Continue reading Lecture Series: Consumers’ Perspective on the TPP Problem

New GMO Food Additives To Be Introduced Without Full Safety Appraisal

Labelled only as “amino acid and others”

On September 14, 2009, two new food additives from Ajinomoto were judged to be “safe” by the Expert Committee for Genetically Modified Food and Others at the Food Safety Commission (FSC). The appraisal was open for public comments and it seems likely that the two novel amino acid products will be approved by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour by the end of November. 

So far, several GMO food additives have been approved, but they were basically used for food processing, as in the case of enzymes like alpha amylase for improved productivity. There have been no cases of GMO food additives that are used directly as seasoning as is the case of amino acids. Thus, when Ajinomoto first submitted these GMO products, there was no established method for safety appraisal. 

That was why the Food Safety Commission has published a “Directive for safety assessment of food additives which are produced using genetically modified micro-organisms and which are highly refined and have non-protein characteristics, including amino acids.” (Many studies have verified that the process of genetic engineering can produce unpredicted toxins or allergens.)  Continue reading New GMO Food Additives To Be Introduced Without Full Safety Appraisal