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Lemon boom in Japan attributed to health consciousness, stay-at-home lifestyles

A lemon sour drink and nibbles. (Mainichi)
A "Lemon hot pot" recommended for winter. (Photo courtesy of Pokka Sapporo Food & Beverage Ltd.)

TOKYO -- Lemons used to be something to put in black tea or couple with fries decades ago in Japan, but the country has seen a lemon boom in recent years, with snack and beverage makers using the fruit in various products.

    According to "shochu" liquor distillers, "lemon sour" drinks (Japanese-style shochu cocktails mixed with lemon juice and soda) have been popular over the past few years, and a number of companies have put the spotlight on drinks and dishes using lemon. The health benefits of lemons are being studied, and with a focus on health consciousness amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and a trend toward stay-at-home lifestyles, the popularity of lemon products looks likely to persist this year.

    "The lemon sour boom is continuing," commented a representative of an association of Japanese companies that make multiple-distilled shochu (korui shochu). "The popularity of lemon sours is supporting liquor distillers even though the consumption of korui shochu, as well as alcoholic drinks overall, has stagnated due to the aging and declining population." Korui shochu is often used for sours because of its mild flavor.

    "Hot honey lemon" recommended for winter. (Photo courtesy of Pokka Sapporo Food & Beverage Ltd.)

    According to an online survey the association conducted between August and November 2019, a national average of 83% of some 30,000 respondents reported drinking lemon sours over the past year. The lemon sour boom is said to have started at "izakaya" bars in Tokyo several years ago. The association's past surveys indicate that the popularity of the drinks spread northward through the Tohoku region to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture, then extended to western Japan. The number of people who choose a lemon sour as their first drink when dining is also increasing. The association cites the clean taste and consumers' health awareness as reasons for the popularity of the beverage.

    "Because of the coronavirus pandemic, people are adopting stay-at-home lifestyles, and it seems that more and more people are buying korui shochu at stores and enjoying lemon sours at home," the representative says. "At home, they can adjust the amount of lemon juice and the taste. The boom will likely continue."

    Domestic lemons are harvested in late autumn to winter. Production increased fourfold over the two decades up to 2014, when domestic produce topped 10,000 metric tons for the first time ever. Japan's top producer of lemons is Hiroshima Prefecture, which accounted for 60% of domestic shipments in 2017. The prefecture created the "Setouchi (Inland Sea) Lemon" brand, and the amount produced has been increasing.

    The popularity of lemon products in Japan is said to have been kick-started by "salt lemon" -- lemons pickled in salt -- in around 2014 after salt products like shio-koji (salted rice malt) became prevalent.

    According to Pokka Sapporo Food & Beverage Ltd., whose "Pokka Lemon" beverage has been selling well since 1957, shipments of "Pokka Lemon 100" drinks between January and November 2020 were expected to increase 20% compared to the same period a year earlier -- a record-high. The company attributes the rise in sales to demand stemming from stay-at-home lifestyles and consumers' health consciousness.

    While lemons are known to be rich in vitamin C, Pokka Sapporo has been studying the effects of lemons' nutrients on health with Tadayuki Iida, a professor at the Prefectural University of Hiroshima who also is the head of the university's lemon health science project research center. They have focused on the characteristics of citric acid contained in lemon, which wraps around calcium and enables it to be easily absorbed in the intestines. Based on data including a result of experiments on middle-aged and older women who imbibed drinks with lemon juice and calcium, Iida says it is probable that lemons prevent bones from ejecting excessive calcium, while also preventing bone density loss, and that they lower blood pressure.

    Pokka Sapporo conducted another online survey of some 2,400 people nationwide between March and December last year on how they use lemons, and learned that more and more people are using lemons in drinks as well as in cooking.

    Among those who responded that they have had greater opportunities to consume lemons and lemon products, 64% used them for meat dishes, 46% for fish dishes, and 41% for salads. In terms of beverages, 33% said they put them in soda, while 29% said they make lemon sours.

    As people tend to refrain from dining out nowadays, Pokka Sapporo has unveiled a number of lemon recipes using its products on its website (https://www.pokkasapporo-fb.jp/) which people can enjoy at home. Recipes for winter include "hot honey lemon" -- a mixture of a tablespoonful of honey, Pokka Lemon 100 and 150 cc of boiled water -- and "lemon hot pot." The company says, "As people are dining at home more often than before, we would like them to make use of lemons and lemon beverages when arranging dishes."

    (Japanese original by Naohiko Takura, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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