Functional foods in Japan

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Dr Tsuneo Hirahara discusses the birth of the concept of functional

The concept of functional foods was proposed by Japanese academic society in the early 1980's, and the legislation for functional foods was first implemented as FOSHU, which stands for " Foods for Specified Health Use", writes Dr Tsuneo Hirahara.

Since the weather in Japan is suitable for microbial growth, food industries that use mould and bacteria have been developed. There exists in Japan the dietary experience traditional of foods processed by microbes or enzymes and the technologies required to produce such foods. Consequently, quite a few industries in Japan have concentrated their efforts on oligosaccharides and intestinal bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli for research and development of functional foods.

From a socio-economical viewpoint, in common with other countries, Japan is facing financial difficulties in medical care costs due to the increase in chronic diseases and the expansion of life spans.

With these backgrounds a specified research programme funded by the Ministry of Education started in 1984 and 82 leading researchers from various fields participated in it. In this project, the term "Food Function" was first introduced. The regulation and market of FOSHU​ The Ministry of Health and Welfare showed a strong interest in the concept from the standpoint of health services. They set up in 1989 the Functional Food Round Table which developed into the Functional Food Study Committee to discuss the legislation.

In 1991 the Ministry established the FOSHU labeling regulation. It was implemented by adding a new category of FOSHU to "Foods for Special Dietary Uses" in the Nutrition Improvement Law. The word "functional", however, was not used since it appears in the definition of "pharmaceuticals" where things intended to affect the structure or function of the body are described as pharmaceuticals.

FOSHU approval by MHW is a permission system for labeling to claim that a food helps maintain or is suitable for a health condion, when the claim is substantiated based on medical and nutritional science. Therefore. A few scientific documents are required to obtain FOSHU approval, namely clinical and nutritional documentation demonstrating the health efficacy of the food or the ingredient, clinical and nutritional evidence on dietary intake, validation of safety and stability, and analytical methods and the results for identification.

In the beginning not many industries were interested in FOSHU because of these burdens. Buy, in recent years, MHW took deregulation measures to encourage industries and so the FOSHU market has been expanding.

From December 1999 the total number of approved FOSHU was 171. According to a survey, total FOSHU sales were around 130billion yen in 1997, but it increased to 220 billion yen in 1999. Foods in the vicinity of Functional Foods​ Originally foods that have the function to modulate the body function that contribute to the prevention of a disease were called "Functional Foods". However it is now widely understood to mean foods that claim such biological effects beyond ordinary nutritional effects based on scientific validation.

In Japan there are a variety of so-called health foods. Whether they are functional foods or not should be judged one by one from the above viewpoint. Among them vitamins and minerals have been paid special attention as so-called dietary supplements. Although many scientific papers report on their functionality, there may be some controversy over whether they can be called functional foods when the form of the product is an important element of the definition of "functional foods" because dietary supplements are usually recognized as in the form of tablets or capsules. In 1999 the market size of health foods was approximately 750 billion yen. Problems to be solved​ Research and development on functional foods would not be rewarded without any reasonable and satisfactory system of health claims for the corresponding products. The system should be well established so as to gain consumer's support and international understanding. Even the current FOSHU system should be improved further in terms of health claims.

There are several points to be discussed on health claims for foods, such as the scope, the premise and the condition of expression that should be taken as reasonable, the process by which scientific substantiation is authorised and the criteria for evaluation.

Established in 1978 the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a worldwide foundation that aims to help public health by advancing the understanding of scientific issues related to nutrition, food safety, toxicology, and the environment. The Institute brings together scientists from academia, government, industry, and the public sector to seek solutions for public health issues.

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