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Mon, Jan 17, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Japanese firms catering to the nation's health fad

AFP , Tokyo

Japan's electronics giant Sharp employee Noriko Ohashi displays the new electric superheated steam oven ``Healsio'' which enables low-calorie roasting of foods using steamed water at a temperature approximately 300 degrees Celsius in Tokyo.

PHOTO: AFP

As obesity around the world reaches epic proportions, Japanese firms are watching profit margins bulge on healthy products as they find consumers who have both money and fat to burn.

The latest company to join the trend is high-tech giant Sharp which has announced it will go global with its new household "water oven" which cuts food's fat and salt while keeping its vitamin C.

Sharp's "Healsio" oven cooks by blowing steam at temperatures as hot as 300?C -- technology only available until recently for industry use, said Miyuki Nakayama, company spokeswoman.

"We are planning to introduce Healsio to Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia in February through March. We will also bring it to the US and European markets before the end of this year," she said.

She said Sharp, which already markets the Healsio in Japan at a price of ?126,000 (US$1,230), hoped for annual sales of 500,000 units in the year to March 2008.

Japan's traditional wholesome diet and active lifestyle have made the country one of the world's healthiest, with more than 23,000 Japanese people aged 100 or more.

But health consciousness is also growing in Japan, and companies have been inspired by the market they have found.

When the Healsio was introduced in September, Sharp planned to sell 10,000 units a month, taking into account the hefty price. But the company wound up upgrading production to 20,000 a month, Nakayama said.

"More and more Japanese consumers, particularly women, are becoming aware about their health," said Takayo Yamamoto, research director at Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.

"Generally speaking, mothers with small children and elders with health needs are willing to spend extra money to benefit from added values of new products that should improve their health.

"Many purchasing decisions related to household goods and food -- two key items related to health -- are made by women, though men are also gradually becoming health conscious.

"We see this not just as a short-term fad, but as a long-term trend," she said.

Japan is often associated in overseas perceptions with healthy living, leading to a popularity of a variety of Japanese goods both traditional and modern.

In the 1970s, tofu began entering Western diets thanks to a growing draw to both vegetarianism and eco-friendly living.

A decade later came rice cakes, a staple of the Japanese diet which took off when billed as low-calorie and low-fat snacks.

One of Japan's top beneficiaries of weight-consciousness has been Ajinomoto Co, whose artificial sweetener aspartame is marketed abroad under names such as Nutrasweet and Equal.

The company announced last month it would invest ?six billion US$58 million to boost annual global output of aspartame from 5,445 tonnes a year to 9,070 tonnes by March next year.

Ajinomoto is building a new factory in Brazil and upgrading plants in the US and China -- two countries where worries about obesity are sharply rising.

As China cuts back on poverty, its number of obese people has doubled to 60 million in the 10 years to 2002, according to government figures.

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