“We … continue to develop products that address nutritional needs”

Going long on health

European firms help Japan stay healthy


Text by Dan Sloan

Japan has long led the world in life expectancy, fuelled by a diet abundant in healthy food and drinks, such as miso, natto and green tea. But Europe is climbing the longevity ladder, with Spain now expected to capture the seniors’ title by 2040.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation sees the average Spaniard living to 85.8 years old, eventually edging out the average Japanese citizen, who will still reach the hardy age of 85.7. Nonetheless, Japan was home to nearly 70,000 centenarians last year, and the government’s Council for Designing 100-year Life Society expects membership in the nation’s three-digit club to rise.

Healthier menus and lifestyles are key to reaching that milestone. In Japan, the incidence of obesity and heart disease is one of the lowest of any OECD nation, but there were a record 10 million diabetes cases in 2017, according to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. This is up from 6.9 million cases two decades earlier and packs an estimated annual cost of ¥400,000 per patient.

Not surprisingly, wellness products are in great demand here. One of the first to find traction was the probiotic fermented milk drink Yakult, which was launched in Japan in 1935 and is known for its ubiquitous Yakult Lady, with some 80,000 now bicycling the globe and selling their healthy beverages.

The opening-up of post-war Japan brought with it imported healthy food and drinks, including yoghurt, introduced in the early 1970s. It enjoyed combined annual domestic sales of over ¥1 trillion in 2017.

The French firm Danone has cultivated Japanese yoghurt demand for almost four decades, and halted the use of colourants and artificial sweeteners and scents for all products last May. It recently introduced matcha (green tea) yoghurt and a yoghurt with hojicha (roasted green tea) and persimmon pulp, using natural ingredients from Kagoshima and Wakayama prefectures, respectively.

“Since entering the market as a joint venture in 1980, Danone Japan has focused on consumers, giving them a choice of simple and selected ingredients,” says Kazumi Hasegawa, director at Danone Japan. “We see opportunities in the health and wellness needs of consumers and continue to develop products that address nutritional needs, such as enhanced calcium in Petit Danone and vitamin D in Danone yogurt.”

An indication that the Japanese market is far from saturated is MS Iceland Dairies’ decision to bring traditional Icelandic yoghurt, skyr, to Japan in 2019, in partnership with Nippon Luna.

Skyr has been a part of the Icelandic way of life for centuries, and its health benefits have been known to Icelanders for generations, so I am very happy that we will soon have the chance to share this wonderful product with Japanese consumers,” says Ambassador of Iceland to Japan Elín Flygenring. “We have seen how positively markets around the world have reacted to skyr and we are sure the Japanese market will be the same.”


Even Japanese beverage maker Kirin is allocating resources to health solutions, raising output of iMuse products, which use its proprietary lactic acid bacteria technology. Kirin contends the technology can prevent illnesses such as colds and influenza, and sees the segment growing to ¥100 billion over the next two decades. Meanwhile, Kirin’s wine arm, Mercian Corporation, has launched a new version of its Bon Rouge wine that boasts three times more resveratrol, which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Roughly 90% of the world’s organic market is based in Europe and North America, while Japan’s share is only a fraction in terms of production and imports. The country’s introduction to organic produce was as a contract-based production and distribution system between farmers and retailers, with grading standards introduced only in 2000. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, public awareness of food origin and safety has risen, but the demand for organic products has remained tame.

Nichifutsu Boeki, which distributes Alce Nero pasta and many other products, is one of Japan’s top organic players and has expanded retail space from speciality shops to large supermarket chains. The French family-owned firm groups over 1,000 organic farmers and beekeepers and offers a variety of their products both in stores and online. The company also sponsors study meetings between Italian and Japanese organic farmers to promote best practices.

“We started selling durum wheat pasta [in Japan in] 1994, then added EXV olive oil, tomato products, balsamic vinegar and honey,” says Alce Nero spokesperson Naoko Ito.

“In 2001, [there was a] durum whole-wheat spaghetti boom due to media features on a ‘low-insulin diet’,” she explains. “I personally think the frozen sector will increase in the near future.”

Packaged organic food sales in Japan reached ¥42 billion in 2017.

French organic retailer Bio c’ Bon, in partnership with Japanese retail giant Aeon, has five stores in Japan and a network of 100 farms. It represents numerous European exporters. Bio c’ Bon expects to expand to 200 stores by the end of 2020.

Switzerland-based Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, launched the personalised Nestlé Wellness Ambassador programme for Japanese subscribers in 2017, and now has 100,000 users. These people share food photos for analysis, and Nestlé then recommends supplements, such as its green tea-flavoured capsules, kale smoothies, or vitamin-fortified snacks, and suggests possible lifestyle changes, as well. Subscribers pay up to ¥65,000 annually for the service, which also uses results from home DNA and blood test kits to help reduce high cholesterol or modify sugar-rich diets. The company sees the Japan-based service as a template for other markets and expects to have some 250,000 ambassadors by 2020.

Healthier and longer lives — and potentially less medical spending — are crucial factors for everyone. The Japanese government alone spent a record ¥42.2 trillion on healthcare in 2017, a sidebar of the nation’s greying demographics and a hint of what the next 20 years have in store. Average spending on those 75 and older was ¥942,000 per person, while for those under 75, it was ¥221,000.

“If we can keep our health, we won’t need to spend [as much] money,” says Alce Nero’s Ito, who describes the average customer as a self-sufficient 60-something with ample free time, who loves to cook delicious meals, particularly organic Italian dishes. 

Healthier and longer lives — and potentially less medical spending — are crucial factors for everyone.