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Juicy health benefits seen as path to reversing decline in fruit consumption in Japan

People enjoy mandarins at a tasting event held by the University of Tokyo Mikan Fan Club, at the university's Komaba campus in Tokyo's Meguro Ward. (Mainichi)

At the Komaba Festival at the University of Tokyo's Komaba campus in late November 2017, a line of people at a mandarin tasting event sponsored by the university's Mikan Fan Club extended out into the corridor. Students explained the origins of different varieties of "mikan," as the fruit is known in Japanese, and their various taste characteristics. Participants tried six different types of mandarin and then tried to guess the variety.

    Among the participants was a group of four women in their 40s and 50s. "I think this is a Mie Prefecture mandarin," "This is sweet, isn't it?" the women remarked as they eagerly sampled the fruit. In the past, they said, they used to buy mandarins by the box, but now they just buy nets containing only a few mandarins each. There are various reasons for this.

    "There's an image of eating mandarins at the kotatsu (a low, blanket-covered table with a built-in heater), but we don't have a kotatsu, and not everyone in the family eats mandarins either," one participant said. Another added, "There are other fruits to choose from, too."

    Third-year student Shuya Mizuno, 22, a "third generation" joint leader of the club, said that he was previously not the type to go out and buy fruit.

    "Fruit was like snack food. If it came down to buying fruit, I would've gone to a ramen restaurant instead," he said.

    It was when he went on a diet and was running up food bills on meat and other items, that he started buying fruit regularly. By eating fruit, which is rich in vitamins and has hardly any fat content, he realized he could stay healthy while keeping his food bills down.

    "I don't think any Japanese dislike mandarins, but they have no motivation to buy them, so they don't. I think if they found out about the regions producing them and their nutritional value, and tried them once, it would become natural to eat them," he says. Club members sometimes go to give lectures at elementary schools, and also hold camps at farms.

    On an international scale, Japanese people don't eat much fruit in the first place. Statistics for 2013 from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations -- the most recent data available -- show that on average, per capita fruit supply in Japan stands at 144.8 grams per day. Among 175 countries and regions, that puts Japan in 135th place. Fruit supply per person in Japan is roughly half that of the amount in the United States.

    A survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found that average per capita fruit consumption in Japan peaked at 193.5 grams per day in 1975. Since then, the figure has been declining, and over the past 20 years, it has hovered around 100 to 120 grams per day. A food balance guide released in 2005 recommended that people should consume 200 grams of fruit per day (the equivalent of about two mandarins), but Japanese eat only about half that amount. In 2016, the figure dropped below 100 grams for the first time in around half a century, reaching 98.9 grams.

    While the amount of fruit processed for juice and other items has increased, the amount of fresh fruit that people consume has fallen. A survey conducted by the Japan Fruit Association in 2014 found that the No. 1 reason people don't eat fruit every day is that it doesn't last long and they can't store it. Other top reasons are "It costs more than other food," "It's a nuisance to have to peel it before you can eat it," and "There are other foods to eat."

    "In Japan, fruit is treated more as a luxury than a meal item," says Hisashi Kawaguchi, an official at the Japan Fruit Association. As the range of luxury items such as Western sweets and snacks has grown more abundant, it has become harder for people to choose fruit over other items. These words are backed up by the fact that consumers have a tendency to choose fruit with high sugar content and without seeds. The efforts of producers, for example by picking up on the popularity of Halloween and distributing stickers likening persimmons to Halloween pumpkins, also point to the perception that fruits are luxury items.

    Citrus unshiu mandarins, the fruit often seen on kotatsu table tops, saw annual peak production of around 3.5 million tons in the 1970s, but the figure has fallen to around 800,000 tons in recent years. A family budget survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications found that consumption of the fruit was topped by the current No. 1 fruit, bananas, in 2004. In a bid to win back consumers, mandarin industry organizations have unveiled promotions such as the "desk de mikan" (mandarin at your desk) campaign targeting people between their 20s and 40s. As part of the promotions, mandarins have been distributed free of charge at stations used by commuters, company dining halls and universities, among other locations.

    One point that has been highlighted in promoting mandarins is the fact that they contain beta-cryptoxanthin, a natural pigment. A nutritional epidemiology survey conducted on residents of the Mikkabi district of Kita Ward in the city of Hamamatsu, which produces Mikkabi mandarins, found that those who consumed more mandarins had a higher concentration of beta-cryptoxanthin in their blood, and they faced a lower risk of osteoporosis than those who didn't eat mandarins. In 2015, the agricultural cooperative association JA Mikkabi registered the fruit with the Consumer Affairs Agency under the "food with function claims" system for the first time for a perishable item, and labeled boxes with such phrases as "good for the health of your bones." Other production areas in Shizuoka Prefecture and agricultural cooperatives in Hiroshima Prefecture soon followed suit.

    "We've arrived at an age where people expect things to be tasty," commented Toyohito Shimada, an official from the Japan Fruit Growers Cooperative Association. Shimada added, "Lycopene (another natural pigment that has strong antioxidant properties) brought about a boom for tomatoes. We'll also promote mandarins for their function (in benefitting health)."

    Research has shown that beta-cryptoxanthin can lower the risk of lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes, and it is possible that new health labeling could appear in the future.

    Bananas saw a boom in Japan after being introduced as foods rich in enzymes that helped burn fat and aided metabolism. Recently, JA-Group Wakayama began analyzing the nutrients in seedless persimmons each month, and started special labeling on fruit containers in the autumn of 2017 to advertise their plentiful supply of vitamin C and folic acid amid a health and beauty boom.

    In Aomori and Nagano prefectures, there have been moves to acquire "food with function claims" -- designations in connection with the polyphenols in apples. Toshihiko Shoji, a member of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization's Institute of Fruit, Tree and Tea Science comments, "Overseas, the importance of healthy people eating fruit is common knowledge, but in Japan, fruit is misunderstood as causing diabetes or making people fat, and consumption hasn't really increased. Disclosing scientifically proven health benefits could provide a spark for increasing consumption."

    It seems that health properties may be a key factor in stressing the benefits of some fruits whose significance once lay mostly in their sweetness and smell.

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