I was an avid nutrition label reader in my home country. I checked the ingredients of everything, searching, in my case, for hidden animal products. Did you know some canned frosting is 100 percent dairy free? Or that a lot of pre-sliced bread doesn’t have a trace of eggs or milk? How about that corn syrup is in everything from canned tomato soup to soda? Unfortunately, my avid reading at the grocery store all but ended when I first came to Japan. I could barely tell what some products were, let alone what was in them. I stuck to the easily identifiable things like fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, tofu, and other whole foods at first, but that was more than a little limiting, and it cut me off from a lot of potentially delicious (and easier to cook) offerings that would still match up with my dietary restrictions.
For those of you who are also label readers—either because of dietary restrictions, allergies, or things you want to avoid for your health—but find yourselves lost in Japan, here’s a quick guide to deciphering nutrition labels. Be warned that this isn’t exhaustive, and if you have particularly serious allergies you’ll want to study up more.
Above is the back of a bag of rice crackers (senbei). On the top left we see the nutritional information, like grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. On the middle left, above the bar code, we see a list of common allergenic ingredients, with those contained in these particular rice crackers highlighted in black. On the bottom right we see a box with a variety of info, including the ingredient list.
Let’s take a closer look at the ingredient list first, since this box and its formatting are standard across Japanese processed food items.
Now that you know what the ingredient list looks like, how do you figure out if the things you’re avoiding are in the product? Though the words, and therefore the kanji compounds, may be different for things like “milk,” “whole milk powder,” “lactose,” and so on, the nice thing is that the character “乳” shows up in all of them. You can refer to the cheat sheet below when skimming ingredients, and make sure the kanji of what you’re avoiding doesn’t appear in the list. For a full-sized version of this cheat sheet that you can print out and carry with you, see the Food Safety Helpcard on the WaNavi website.
Avoiding gelatin? That most commonly shows up in katakana, written as ゼラチン.
This primer and cheat sheet should get you on your way to reading ingredient lists. You can also keep an eye out for packages that separately list allergenic ingredients, such as these:
However, keep in mind that the law doesn’t require food manufacturers to provide this list, and it may not include the ingredients you’re looking out for. But if it works for your particular restrictions, it can be a quicker way to discern if something you’re avoiding is included or not.
Interested in learning more about avoiding allergens, finding out where food is sourced from, and healthy eating with common Japanese ingredients that you might be unfamiliar with? If you missed WaNavi Japan’s Healthy Eating Workshop last June covering all this and more, we can hold the same workshop for you if you get together a group of five or more. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and don’t forget to visit our website and Facebook page to see what other events and learning experiences you can join.
By Jordan Wyndelts
WaNavi Japan is a nonprofit organization that provides international residents and their families with critical information and support to live comfortably and confidently in Japan through various services including workshops, networking, navigation, research, and consulting. The group also provides meaningful opportunities for Japanese and international residents to interact and build personal ties. The inspiration for WaNavi’s work comes from the events that deeply affected Japan on March 11, 2011 and the dislocation and concern experienced by international residents in Japan. Part of WaNavi Japan’s profits go to support families who have been directly affected by the Tohoku earthquake.