Big in Japan? Blackcurrants, barley and maple syrup pitch for functional food success in Tokyo

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Blackcurrant anthocyanins can control oxidative stress, reduce muscle damage and aid immunity. ©iStock
Blackcurrant anthocyanins can control oxidative stress, reduce muscle damage and aid immunity. ©iStock

Related tags New zealand Nutrition

The sports nutrition potential of New Zealand blackcurrants, the superfood status of Canadian maple syrup and the functional benefits of Canadian barley – these were three of the high-profile pitches at the HI Japan tradeshow from international organisations seeking to tap into the country’s health food market.

The three research/ trade organisations present in Tokyo were keen to extoll the health benefits of their products as they sought to expand in the historical home of functional foods, which is witnessing a boom in the wake of a more relaxed health claims environment.

With the country’s health food market growing by 3% annually even before last year’s less stringent Foods with Functions Claims​ rules came into force, it’s no surprise that these organisations want a bigger slice of the pie for their members.

According to Citadelle, Quebec's largest cooperative of sugar maple growers and maple syrup producers, the product has the potential to become “the next superfood” ​success story.

“Evidence published in a University of Rhode Island study found it may well be the next superfood.

“The study, shown at annual conference of the American Chemical Society, shows maple syrup extract has Alzheimer’s fighting potential," s​aid director Jo-Ann Cleary.

She also highlighted its use as a sugar replacement, but also stressed its additional health benefits.

“It is so much more than an everyday sweetener. It also contains organic acids, minerals, phenolic compounds, vitamin and amino compounds. It also ranks very well in terms of antioxidants – with 63 different antioxidants present,”​ she added.

So far Citidelle’s members export to 40 countries, with Japan its third largest overseas market. However, Cleary said there was immense potential for future growth.

One ingredient that is not yet so well established in Japanese products, however, is New Zealand blackcurrants.

Benefit all ages

Roger Hurst, from New Zealand’s Plant and Food Research, said the scientific evidence suggested blackcurrant anthocyanins can control oxidative stress, reduce muscle damage and aid immunity

“We envisage that products [containing blackcurrant] can benefit all ages and especially anyone who can benefit from exercise, from recreation level to sports teams and athletes,”​ added Hurst.

He said Plant and Food Research and the New Zealand Blackcurrant Co-Operative was developing a formal relationship to provide “the best ingredients backed by research and tech support for the marketing of high value consumer products that carry functional claims.”

There is currently a health claim lodged for blackcurrant in New Zealand and a new industry trademark is being developed.

“There are a series of clinical trials to support our claims and we have collaborated in 11 studies so far,”​ he added.

“The data supports functional claims to control oxidative stress and inflammation, to reduce muscle damage and soreness, enhance immunity and improves performance,”​ he added.

Hurst said there was incredible potential for the growth of products containing New Zealand blackcurrants in Japan.

“There are only a couple of products available at the moment which are targeting high-health, but we are trying to broaden that now, with products backed by science,” ​he added.

Cholesterol claim

Also in Tokyo last week, the Barley Council of Canada was promoting its products for functional foods and health goods.

“The benefits include dietary fibre, protein and numerous vitamins and minerals,” ​said Mary Beth Takao, senior commercial officer at Alberta Canada.

Barley has an approved health claim to lower cholesterol in both Canada and US, and representatives said they hoped rising Japanese sales would help it build on an 11% increase in Alberta’s agri-food exports in 2015, to now stand at $5.4bn.

There were also a small number of companies from other countries at the show, which is dominated by the multi-nationals and local players.

Sri Lankan company Beraka currently sells its virgin coconut oil in Japan, but was hoping to make inroads with its black seed oil for supplement use to reduce blood sugar.

The Jeju Business Agency was also present promoting several juice extracts from its members, but conceded it had been hard to make inroads into Japan so far.

Finally, Hong Kong-based producer of Chinese honey Niang Miel said it was targeting Japanese sales on back of strong growth in China and Australia among mainstream manufacturers.

“However, we definitely see more potential for Japan in terms of health and food supplements,”​ said CEO Kathy Lee.

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