Today's 40-somethings can recall pestering their parents as children to buy them a cola, only to be told sternly that "it's not good for your body."
Now, in response, they can guzzle Kirin Mets Cola--which claims to "suppress fat absorption"--and even has the backing of a government seal of approval.
"They're happy to have this product and gladly accept the message that they shouldn't refrain from eating what they want," says Mukogawa Women's University marketing professor Hiroyuki Akaoka.
The cola, launched in April, bears the Food for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU) seal of approval from the Consumer Affairs Agency. The basis for the FOSHU certification is that when drank while eating fatty foods, Mets Cola uses dietary fiber to absorb fat in the bloodstream.
Kirin has repeatedly revised its sales target upward and exceeded 100 million total items shipped by late September. It is popular with the ranks of 40-something men who feel uncertain about their youthfulness and want to invest in their health.
"These drinks are selling well to the same consumers as hair tonic does," Akaoka says.
The first commercial for the beverage featured the manga character "Ashita no Joe" (Tomorrow's Joe) holding a hamburger in one hand and a pizza in the other, which was criticized for saying that drinking Kirin Mets Cola could cancel out unhealthy eating habits.
In the highly competitive beverage market, where products regularly come and go, drinks simply reflect the spirit of the times. But one marketing technique beverage makers use is to stimulate new consumption by changing the context in which they present a product.
A report titled "2011 State of Ningen Dock," produced by the Japan Society of Ningen Dock, an academic society that promotes medical checkups and preventive medicine, states that of the 980,000 or so 40-somethings receiving medical checkups, the percentage receiving a score of "A" for "no abnormalities" or "B" for "no cause for concern now" has dropped over the years to 9 percent. The remaining 91 percent need to make some sort of "improvement."
Like many physicians, one physician concerned about inconsistent preventive care said, "Examinations can find even minor abnormalities nowadays because they are more comprehensive and accurate. People who lead normal lives end up being in poor health."
Associate professor Kensuke Suzuki of Kwansei Gakuin University's School of Sociology said "health conscious is a vague expression."
"The reality is that people out in the world are being made to feel that they need to be concerned about their health," Suzuki says.
He adds, "The appearance and success of retail FOSHU products that make people think they can compensate for overeating symbolizes the growth of this trend. Marketers are going to target even more people to consume these products."
While those marketing FOSHU products base their sales pitches on science, they also say consumers should not rely on them, as this would be placing "excessive expectations on food products."
As Tatsuya Mima, a Kyoto University associate professor of clinical neurophysiology and medical sociology points out, "Even if a FOSHU product passes a government review, it is still no more than a commercial product. It's tied up with commercialism. Isn't the problem the fact that we don't see any public health policies as an alternative (to FOSHU)?"
CORPORATE STRATEGIES RUSH AHEAD WITH FOSHU PRODUCTS
FOSHU food products are certified for demonstrating they are effective at maintaining and improving health. The central government institutionalized the system in 1991, to create first-class health foods based on science and to protect consumers from health hazards and other harmful effects. There are presently thousands of commercialized products for eight intended uses, including drinks, cooking oil and chewing gum.
Department of Food Function and Labeling Chief Yoshiko Ishimi at the National Institute of Health and Nutrition says, "At some point, corporate strategies and consumer expectations started getting ahead of themselves. Consumers are not being told the crucial information that these are not products that will have an effect no matter who you are or what you eat."
When companies test their products on people to obtain FOSHU certification, they always impose strict controls over their diet and activities; they do not examine how the products perform when people use them in real life.
Indigestible dextrins, fiber supplements found in Kirin's FOSHU cola, have different intended healthy effects in other FOSHU products: to "settle one's stomach" and "slow down an increase in blood sugar after eating." But they may also inhibit the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, which would have a detrimental effect if taken to an extreme.
Polyphenols that "make it hard for fat to cling to the body" and catechin that "makes it easier to burn fat" have been confirmed to have only limited effects.
"The problem is that they are used for the purpose of erasing fears over overeating," says Ishimi.
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