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Zeroing in on the Health Boom

Array of Foods and Drinks for the Weight Conscious


Low-calorie, sugar-free happoshu. ©Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd.

A trip to a Japanese supermarket or convenience store these days reveals a prominence of items displaying the numeral "0" on their packaging. They are calling shoppers' attention to the fact that the products are sugar-, calorie-, or fat-free - and sometimes all three. These "zero-type" foods and drinks, as they have been dubbed, have struck a chord among a rapidly expanding legion of health-conscious consumers, from middle-aged men who want to trim inches from their waistlines to young women who wish to stay slim. Developing foods that satisfy both taste buds and the desire to cut calories is not easy, but beverage and food makers are now marketing an array of new products to meet the burgeoning demand.

Huge New Market
In an effort to clamp down on metabolic syndrome, which increases the likelihood of cardiovascular and other lifestyle-related diseases, medical checkups since April 2008 have routinely included measurements of the waistline, in addition to such traditional items as cholesterol and fat content, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. This has had the effect of making people more conscious about their weight and helped to ignite a boom in "zero" foods and drinks.

The "zero" products are particularly appealing to those who do not want to give up drinking alcohol or soft drinks but, at the same time, want to hold down their caloric intake. Canned happoshu (a beer-like, low-malt beverage), chuhai (sparkling beverages with a shochu, or distilled liquor, base), and coffee free of sweeteners were launched one after another and rang up unexpectedly strong sales, creating a massive new market for these zero-type drinks.

Legal Standards
Standards for ingredient labels in Japan are prescribed by the Health Promotion Law, and products billing themselves as calorie-free must yield no more than 5 kilocalories per 100 grams. Sugar-free products, meanwhile, must not contain more than 0.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams. A distinction is made between "sugar" and "sweetener," moreover, so that a sugar-free drink may not necessarily be sweetener-free. Satisfying consumers' palates can be difficult when using alternative sweeteners, though, and many food makers have had their work cut out achieving natural-tasting sweetness.

The zero-type boom has now spread to sports and carbonated drinks, and the range of calorie-free drinks has broadened considerably. Beverage makers are putting a great deal of energy into making these taste good in the hope that they will remain a permanent fixture in the drinks market.


Sugar-free, fruit-flavored throat sweets.

Desserts Next?
The zero-type trend is no longer limited to beverages but has spread to foodstuffs as well, including ham and sausages. There have long been  sugar-free candy drops, and sugar- and fat-free yoghurts, but now there are even "triple-zero" jelly and other products that claim to contain no fat, sugar, or calories.

The zero-food boom is expected to expand further to pudding, cookies, and other confectionary and dessert items. Once they come on the market, calorie-free desserts could ignite an even bigger boom among consumers who want to give up calories but not sweets. (January 2009)