Healthy snacks in Japan
The joy of soy
Defying Western food imperialism
If you want to learn how to live longer, look at the people of Okinawa, a string of islands in south-western Japan. Raised on a diet of fish and soyabeans, their life expectancy is among the highest on Earth. There is a natural control group; many Okinawans fled to Brazil and Hawaii after the second world war, where they switched to a meatier diet of steaks and burgers. All have been studied regularly by Japanese researchers over the past three decades to prove that a soya-rich diet can prolong life. Now it is time for the taste test: can a healthy bag of soya nibbles sweep the fatty potato snack off the table?
Kaoru Yamada, a young food specialist at Otsuka Pharmaecutical, a Japanese drug company, has risen to the challenge. She dislikes the taste of soya, so she invented a lightly baked soya pastry that tastes of cheese, is crispy, has soyabeans rattling inside it and can sit on a desk—or even on a bar—for months without going soggy. Called SoyCarat, her creation went on sale in Japan this month. Otsuka, which also produces a big-selling health drink called Pocari Sweat, sees it as part of a counter-offensive against Western snacks that are making Asians fatter.
The science is compelling: research, albeit part-sponsored by Otsuka, suggests that eating soya protein quickly lowers blood pressure, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The company notes that the average American eats less soya in a year than the average Japanese eats in a day. Otsuka is not alone in Japan in trying to use science to sell consumer products: for instance, Uniqlo, a clothes retailer, sells hi-tech underwear that it says makes sweat dry quicker.
But the marketing may be a problem. Sophisticated diners insist that soya is scrumptious, but others vehemently disagree. Gary Larson, a cartoonist, once drew three disgusted lionesses spitting out the wobbly flesh of “a tofudebeest—one of the Serengeti’s obnoxious health antelopes”. It struck a chord.
SoyCarat’s brand name is tricky: whatever the spelling, it evokes the idea of two things children shun and adults munch only reluctantly. Perhaps it should be portrayed as something laid back and Okinawan instead, like a bar snack. After all, what could be better than a life-enhancing glass of Orion beer in one hand, and a life-extending bag of soya snacks in the other?