Addictive products are everywhere. In addition to hard drugs like amphetamines and narcotics, many people become hooked on such "soft drugs" as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. And there are also "mild drugs," such as chocolate, which contains theobromine, a substance that causes the blood vessels to dilate.
Then there are snack foods, which freelance journalist Harumi Ichikawa, writing in Shukan Kinyobi (Sept 24), points out that while not physically addictive, are habitually consumed by growing numbers of young Japanese.
Snack foods first began making their appearance in Japan during the period of high economic growth in the 1960s. Koikeya Co succeeded in mass-production of potato chips in 1962; Calbee marketed its "Kappa-ebisen" crackers in 1964; and Meiji Seika launched "Curl" in 1968.
"Convenience stores have become 'mild drug stores,' whose main business is dispensing soft drinks and snack foods," says Hideo Makuuchi, author of "The People Who Eat Potatoes: The truth behind food products that have become 'soft drugs,'" from WAVE Shuppan. Makuuchi wrote the book to warn people of the dangers of addiction to potato chips and other snack foods.
The average convenience store carries about 40 varieties of snacks, in a variety of package sizes.
According to a website jointly operated by two associations of wholesalers and manufacturers, a total of 222,430 tons of snack foods were produced in Japan in 2009, roughly equivalent to 3.7 billion 60-gram packages with a retail value of approximately 283 billion yen.
In households with spouses in their 30s and 40s -- those most likely to have children of school age -- annual outlays for snack foods averaged around 6,600 yen a year. At a unit price of 100 yen, this would convert to over one package per week.
Data indicate that consumption of snacks declines sharply in households headed by people aged 50 and above (who favor traditional snacks such as "sembei" rice crackers), it is clear that snack foods are being consumed mainly by children, more of whom are likely to develop a dependency.
Dietary habits in the postwar era have been subject to successive waves of change, starting with imports of foreign wheat, the appearance of instant ramen, advent of U.S.-style fast food and so on, but in Makuuchi's view, snack foods are the most insidious.
"Snacks can be obtained cheaply and easily, and since the overall ratio of potatoes is low, one can eat as much as one wants," says Makuuchi. "In the case of fast foods, at least people have to go out to the store to buy it, and despite the empty calories, they contain bread and meat, so they're edible. But people do not give beer or cigarettes or coffee to kids. By the same token feeding snacks to children from age one is like giving them drugs -- adults shouldn't let them have it."
The popularity of snack foods has also had an impact on the flavorings used in traditional rice-based snacks like "sembei," many makers of which now apply more oil, salt, sugar and seasoning. Convenience stores offer "new-style" onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed) stuffed with sausages or pizza sauce and cheese instead of pickled plums or bonito flakes.
"Eventually the day will come when people stop eating plain white rice for breakfast and instead spread mayonnaise and ketchup over their rice," Makuuchi predicts.
Periodic surveys of primary and middle school students of children between ages 10 to 14 conducted over the past three decades by the Education Ministry show a sharp rise in obesity from around 1990.
Tomoo Okada, a specialist in juvenile obesity at a hospital in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward, notes that many of his young patients are in the habit of snacking in front of the TV in the evenings. In addition to early warning symptoms of diabetes, many suffer from fatty liver, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure and other circulatory problems.
"Overweight children, due to family circumstances, tend to eat out or purchase their suppers outside and eat alone," says Okada. "There's a strong tendency toward such poor eating habits. Children who arise earlier, eat three proper meals a day and stay active at school won't become obese."
"We should eat foods that generate flavor through the process of chewing," advises Sadao Mayumi, a pediatrician who regularly lectures on nutrition. "Anything that tastes good as soon as you put it in your mouth is going to be full of additives."© Japan Today