New “No Cal” Sweets Popular with Weight Losers

01/14/2011
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Credit: Maruha Nicihiro Holdings, Inc.

She calls it the eighth wonder of the world. Lisa Silvia recently discovered Japan’s zero-calorie food on a visit to Tokyo from California. Her morning routine quickly became to go to the Family Mart Convenience Store and buy one or two jellos for breakfast.

She expected it to taste artificial, but it was delicious. Her brother, who lives in Tokyo, has promised to send it to her by the cases when she returns home next week.

These are breakthrough items for dropping a few sizes or staying skinny and doing it on the cheap. It’s only about $1.50 for one package and comes in different flavors, including peach, blueberry and strawberry.

It’s a booming business in Japan, selling well in supermarkets and convenience stores, according to Etsko Kobayashi, a spokesperson for Maruha Nichiro Holding, Inc., one of the manufactures of the jello.

“We introduced it in 2008 with only one or two items and in 2010 we had about eight zero-calorie items,” she said. “The boom was triggered after a series of news reports about metabolic syndrome and other problems related to obesity.”

Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare reported on its Web site that 9.2 million people in Japan between the ages of 40 and 74 have metabolic syndrome. In other words, fat is pushing against the internal organs, affecting their blood pressure and blood sugar level. Nutritionists say that in addition to exercise, the best preventive measure is to limit your intake of calories.

A clerk at Lawson Convenience Store’s in Tokyo also says the zero-calorie jello is one of its most popular items, especially after the New Year holidays.

The zero-calorie foods are marketed for people who want to lose weight or stay thin, as well as for people on the borderline of diabetes. It enables them to control their blood sugar much more effectively. The number of diabetics in Japan has increased. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of people suffering from it was 2,371,000 in 2008 as compared to 1,265,000 in 2005.

Once overweight Tomohiko Yamada, a jewelry shop owner in Tokyo, swears by the zero- calorie jellos. He lost about 100 pounds four years ago, which took approximately a year and a half.

He’s been successful at keeping his weight off through self-discipline, but zero-calorie food has made it much easier. “Zero- calorie is wonderful because it’s filling.”

However, Tamae Nakamaura, a nutritionist at the Japan Dietetic Association, says that alone this isn’t a safe or healthy diet.

“Some people eat it as a food supplement, especially Japanese young women, which is not good,” she says. “However, if a person eats a balanced meal and after it still has the urge to eat, then it’s OK to eat these zero- calories foods in place of high-calorie snacks.”

There is also debate about whether the food is zero calorie. The fine print on the boxes has disclaimers saying, “Labeled in accordance with the food law that stipulates that an item with less than five kilo calories per 100 grams may be labeled as zero calories.”

There is a growing movement in Japan to try to limit these claims, which would not be allowed in other countries. This movement, though visible, has yet to gain much traction, although there is now also considerable concern about so- called homeopathic supplements.

Many doubt that you could ever get away with printing something like this on a package or even Web site in the United States or Europe.

The nutritional labeling on one of the zero- calorie packages reads: “Zero protein, zero fat, 6.1 grams of artificial sweetener, 0.3 grams of vegetable fiber, 36 milligrams of natrium and 51.8 milligrams of L/Kalnichin.”

Japanese Mariko Bleich, who creates menus in New York City, says that the way food is marketed these days is sad, reducing it to merely calories and nutrients.

“There’s a phrase in Japan called hara hachi bu, which means you eat only until you’re 80 percent full,” she says. “I have always viewed and respected Japan as a country with a rich food culture, with people who respect their food enough to not over indulge. With foods like these gaining popularity I am worried this culture will dissipate and resemble that of America-confused and calorie obsessed.”

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