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Aomori Pref. looks to improve nation's worst life expectancy by cutting salt intake

An Aomori Prefectural Government employee advertises broth-using products at a supermarket in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, on Nov. 25, 2015. (Mainichi)

HACHINOHE, Aomori -- A movement is afoot in Aomori Prefecture to lift it out of last place in a national ranking of average life expectancy by encouraging residents to reduce the amount of salt in their diets through the use of broths.

    "Hold back on pouring in the soy sauce, on dumping in the miso. If you just cut your salt intake by two grams a day, the future will change," proclaimed Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura at a supermarket on Nov. 25, 2015. He wore an apron and even danced to a theme song promoting the effective use of soup broth as a substitute for more salt-rich ingredients.

    In a listing of prefectural life expectancies released in 2013 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average life expectancy of Aomori Prefecture men was 77.28 -- as compared to the national average of 79.59 -- and the average life expectancy of women in the prefecture was 85.34 -- as compared to the national average of 86.35. For both men and women, Aomori Prefecture came in last. The averages are announced every five years, and it was the eighth time in a row for the prefecture's men to have the shortest life spans and the fourth time in a row for the women to have the shortest life expectancies.

    Aomori Prefecture is also well above the national average for deaths by lifestyle-habit connected ailments like cancer, stroke and heart attack. One cause behind this is the overconsumption of salt. According to ministry surveys, the average daily intake of salt by men in Aomori Prefecture between 2006 and 2010 was 13 grams, the second-highest in the nation, while for women it was 10.9 grams, the fifth-highest in the country. Furthermore, people in Aomori Prefecture buy more instant noodle products than in any other prefecture and often eat these kind of long-lasting, high-salt foods in the winter, when it becomes hard to go shopping because of snowy weather.

    In order to provide good-tasting alternatives to salty foods, prefectural officials looked to the ability of seafood and vegetable broths to act as a substitute. Since 2014, Aomori Prefecture has been working with food manufacturers on the creation of new products, and from March last year it began selling three types of broth in the prefecture, in both powder and liquid form. An official with the prefecture's sales strategy department says, "We have been able to ship out 36,000 units to the market in half a year."

    Aomori Prefecture has also created a book of broth-using recipes that can reduce salt levels to as little as one-third that of normal. It plans to start by incorporating these recipes in areas such as school lunches.

    One factor motivating Aomori Prefecture in its salt-reduction campaign is the model of Nagano Prefecture that has the longest life expectancy of all prefectures. That prefecture also has heavy snowfall and, consequently, a tendency for high salt intake, but since the 1960s it has given guidance to its residents on reducing salt consumption and has achieved positive results. Furthermore, Nagano Prefecture residents take in even more than the 350 grams of vegetables a day the national government recommends, while Aomori residents only take in about 290 to 300 grams of vegetables a day on average.

    In order for Aomori Prefecture to catch up to Nagano Prefecture in terms of life expectancy, its residents will need to re-examine their lifestyles. Nagano Prefecture has the nation's highest ratio of people 65 or older who are still working, as well as a low obesity rating among men that puts it at 40th in the nation. Meanwhile, Aomori Prefecture has the nation's highest rate of smoking among men, and the second highest among women after Hokkaido. Aomori Prefecture also has the highest rate of habitual alcohol use among men, and comes in 46th in the nation for steps walked per day by men.

    Toru Fushiki, professor of food nutrition at Ryukoku University and vice chairman of the "Washoku Bunka Kokumin Kaigi" (Japanese food culture citizens' meeting), who supported Japanese food's registration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, says, "If you just cut salt, people will feel less satisfaction and happiness and will end up eating junk food. It will be good if we can use broth to make good-tasting foods and achieve less salt."

    The next release of national life expectancies will be in two years' time, and will shed light on whether or not the Aomori Prefecture campaign has been successful.

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