For years Japanese functional food manufacturers have been focused on the home market due to its sheer size.
Dr Richard Walton, research and development manager at Japanese food and health company Meiji, told FoodNavigator-Asia that “only fairly recently have Japanese companies started to act in earnest to internationalise.”
“This is spurred on not only by the usual benefits of globalisation but the reality of a shrinking Japanese population and market,” Walton added.
Euromonitor noted a 1% drop in the value of the domestic functional food market in 2010, owed to maturity of the functional food sector and its categories as well as stagnant demand influenced by the recession.
Pegged at €8,127m (US$10.81bn), Japan’s functional food category remains vast, with drinking yoghurt its strongest player representing around a quarter of the market, valued at €2,505m (US$3.33bn), according to Euromonitor data.
Despite the market contraction, the domestic environment remains steady and Euromonitor noted that health and wellness trends should ensure a stable marketplace for functional foods.
The sector is also underpinned by educated and knowledgeable consumers who are “surprisingly receptive to completely new concepts” Walton added.
A cut above the rest?
Japan remains ahead of other Asian markets in the functional food sector, Walton said, due to an earlier economic advancement and regulatory development.
Japan developed the world’s first system for validating and approving functional food claims 20 years ago, the FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Uses) Approval, and this is “a process that Europe is just now struggling through,” Walton said.
This system has “provided a degree of validation to the products developed in Japan, both in the minds of consumers and to international observers,” he added.
The country’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare officially approves food that contains nutritionally appropriate ingredients with clear, proven beneficial health effects and categorises each product and its claim into health uses.
Walton said that FOSHU products constitute for no more than 20% of the functional food market in Japan, and that it is non-FOSHU products that take up the largest market share. These include foods with unsubstantiated claims but also those backed with convincing science that just have no corresponding FOSHU category to apply to.
An extremely short product cycle in Japan, where if products remain unsold in a few weeks they are pulled, creates “pressure from retailers and forces all companies to constantly innovate just to maintain a presence in the marketplace,” Walton said.
In light of this, he said that larger companies have more traction in the market due to resources enabling new product development (NPD).
Smaller companies struggle with the cost requirements of the market, but remain strong in supplements and are present in the functional food sector, just with reduced product portfolios, he added.
“Traditionally, Japan has been friendlier to large companies. There appears to be a general recognition that this needs to change, but action remains slow,” Walton noted.