How to Read Japanese Nutrition Labels
Japanese supermarkets, or konbini, along with vending machines offer a variety of delicacies, with eye-catching and colorful packages. However, you may also become particularly aware of the language gap when delving into Japanese food. Important details are often written in kanji or katakana, making grocery buying a bit challenging.
In this article, you will find an overview of the nutritional information written on Japanese labels. This will help you make healthier and better choices about the food you are buying, based on your needs.
Why is it important to understand Nutrition Labels?
For foreigners living in Japan or even visiting the country for a short period, navigating supermarket aisles may be particularly challenging.
It is very easy to get lost in this paradise of colors and cute cartoon characters that promote indulgent sweets and snacks. However, food may be as dangerous as attractive if you do not put the right attention to it. In other words, reading food labels means shopping consciously. They can tell a completely different story from the one that that flashy, neon packages are trying to sell.
Food labels help us understand what it’s in our food and make better decisions on what we eat, based on our health needs and goals.
Either because of dietary restrictions or allergies, there are ingredients that you may want to avoid when choosing your food. For this reason, it is essential to learn how to navigate Japanese supermarkets and to read nutrition labels.
How to Read Nutrition Facts on Food Product in Japan
Ingredients and nutritional facts (栄養成分表示, eiyo seibun hyouji) are usually reported on the top left of each product. They show helpful information about your food, such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
The nutritional information found on a food label is expressed per portion or per a certain amount of that particular product. This gives you a quick and easy-to-read overview of the value of each nutrient contained in your food.
It must be noted that your health can be either positively or negatively impacted from the food that you eat. While some nutrients should be only eaten occasionally and in limited quantity, others are particularly important for our body.
Here you can find a list of the key nutrients that food and beverages contain. Some of these are already naturally made by your body, while others can only be taken through a balanced diet. Although the suggested amount per each element may change, they are all equally important for you for proper development and functionality of your body.
Calories ( エネルギー/熱量, enerugi/netsuryou) are the energy provided by food, that our body needs to function regularly. As a part of a balanced diet, you should not consume an excessive amount of calories.
Proteins (たんぱく質, tanpakushitsu) allow our body to develop properly and repair its cells and tissues. They are found in legumes, meat, and dairy products. Science confirms that the correct daily intake of protein can reduce the risk of developing cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
Too much fat (脂質, shishitsu) in your diet can increase the risk of obesity and heart disease. However, a small amount of it is still necessary to help our body absorb vitamins and producing energy. It is thus important to be aware of how much fat your food contains.
Together with proteins and fat, carbohydrates (炭水化物, tansui kabutsu) provide energy to our body. Although they represent an important source of nutrients, you should prefer a low “carbs” diet. To this end, you should check the amount of carbs and sugar contained in your food and beverages. On a nutrition label, "carbohydrate" means the sum of "sugar" and "dietary fiber".
Sugars (糖質, toshitsu) are contained in cereals, potatoes, rice, sugar, etc. They are nutrients which are our energy sources. Especially for brains, glucose in blood is the main energy source. Sugars also have the advantage which can be used in our body quicker than fat and proteins even though they are the same energy source. Insufficiency can cause fatigue and lack of concentration and can also cause impaired consciousness if the brain or nerves that need glucose are in short supply. In excess, sugars are stored as neutral fats and cause obesity and several diseases.
Dietary fiber (食物繊維, shokumotsu-seni) is a food ingredient which reaches the large intestine through the small intestine without being digested or absorbed. Many physiological functions have been found, including not only intestinal effects such as prevention of constipation, but also suppression of blood sugar rise and reduction of cholesterol concentration in blood.
Doctors recommend avoiding food high in salt, or sodium (ナトリウム, natoriumu), since they can cause raised blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease. Both adults and children should consume high-salt foods only in small amounts or occasionally.
Calcium (カルシウム,karushiumu) is a mineral that helps you build strong bones and teeth, and protect your blood clots. It is normally found in dairy products, soya beans, and tofu. However, taking high doses of calcium may lead to side effects, such as stomach pain.
Magnesium (マグネシウム, maguneshiumu), is a mineral that helps your body transform the food that you eat into energy. It is also responsible for the production of hormones. Since it is usually found in tofu and fatty fish, Japanese food is commonly a rich source of magnesium.
Iron (鉄分, tetsubun) is found in your hemoglobin, the substance in your red blood cells. Your body cannot naturally make iron. In other words, you must get it from food, such as green vegetables, nuts, and dried food.
Zinc (亜鉛, aen) is an essential nutrient that can only be supplied to your body through your diet. It is required for processes such as wound healing and body’s development. Legumes, shellfish, and dairy products are usually rich in zinc.
Lecithin (レシチン, reshichin) is a fat essential to help improve digestion and maintain your level of cholesterol low. By eating red meat, seafood, and eggs, you should be able to take your suggested daily intake of lecithin.
Cholesterol (コレステロール, koresuteroru) is a fatty substance that covers the walls of your cells. Although it is used by your body to make vitamins and other substances, the ideal daily value for an average adult person is less than 300 mg per day.
Isoflavone (イソフラボン, isofurabon) help lower the risk of cancer. In particular, girls should have a diet rich in this nutrient during their puberty to strengthen their body. It can be found in soy food, and it is believed to have an antioxidant action.
No Genetically Modified Organism
Although there is no nutritional difference between Genetically Modified Food (遺伝子組み換え食品,idenshi kumikae syokuhin) and their non-GMO counterpart, you should always be aware of the nature of your food. This kind of information is reported on every food label.
Know What You’re Eating
Knowing what is in your food is essential to choose wisely what you should eat to get the amount of macronutrients that you need. Moreover, this can help you avoid undesirable health issue linked to allergies.
In other words, learning how to understand and use the nutrition facts label does not only help you buy your groceries in Japan. It also guides you on making healthier eating choices by identifying the food you need for a balanced diet.
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