Our previous blog in this series explored the growing recognition of functional foods as key elements of health promotion, and highlighted Japan’s pioneering FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Uses) system as a model for their safe and responsible commercialization. Building on this foundation, this blog will reveal how FOSHU informed the creation of our latest VOCab, a valuable asset for research in food science and dietary therapeutics. Let’s begin by taking a deeper dive into Japan’s diverse FOSHU market.
As of this writing, there are 1,054 FOSHU lining the shelves of supermarkets, drugstores, and convenience stores all over Japan. Consumers hoping to quench their thirst on the go can choose from beverages such as bottled green tea, fruit juices, and soft drinks; those with a sweet tooth can find chocolates, chewy candies, and probiotic yoghurts.
For proper home cooking, there are essentials like cooking oils, soy sauces, flavoured vinegars and margarine spreads, and a wide variety of seasonings; for quick and easy meals, there are options like instant miso soup, instant noodles, cereals, and rice dishes.
These are just some of the 59 classes of FOSHU, sold by 131 different companies, on the market today. Check out the tables below for a few representative FOSHU along with their claims and supporting evidence. Readers who wish to explore this market in greater depth are recommended to visit the Health Food Navigation Network (HFNet), an online resource offering comprehensive summaries of the health benefits, active ingredients, and scientific evidence supporting each FOSHU (although only available in Japanese).
The Japanese functional food market is expected to exceed 900 billion yen (6.00 billion USD) in annual sales in 2023, with FOSHU product sales accounting for 275 billion yen (1.85 billion USD). The FOSHU seal guarantees consumers the highest quality and robust health benefits, while providing businesses with a significant boost in marketability.
So, it’s no surprise that the prospect of identifying novel functional ingredients—ones promising enough to warrant the investment in clinical trials required for FOSHU certification—has intrigued many industry stakeholders. Given the challenges of exploring ever-increasing volumes of scientific literature, there’s a pressing demand for technological solutions to simplify the process of linking functional ingredients to health issues and outcomes. In recognition of this growing need, SciBite decided to develop a new VOCab specifically focused on functional foods.
Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency maintains a comprehensive database containing detailed summaries of all approved FOSHU, including each product’s name, manufacturer, class, approved claims, and—most importantly for our purposes—functional ingredient(s).
From these Japanese descriptions and associated literature, we translated every functional ingredient in the repository into English and systematically mapped them to public ontologies such as the Food Ontology, ChEBI Chemicals of Biological Interest, and NCBI Taxon in accordance with FAIR principles.
Further curation was done to organize these ingredients into logical hierarchies and to add synonyms in both languages to ensure good recall when annotating unstructured text and scientific articles. The resultant Functional Foods VOCab is a formidable compilation of nearly 1,000 functional ingredients, grouped by class of molecule and species of origin, making it one of the most comprehensive tools of its kind.
When integrated into SciBite software, this extensive resource can supercharge the laborious processes of data mining and literature research. Notably, SciBite Search’s SSQL query and taxonomy functions enable users to interrogate the literature for all classes in a given category at once, even in combination with specific indications: all FOSHU ingredients derived from wheat, for example, or all FOSHU sweeteners tested in the context of diabetes management.
This resource offers insights that can guide the development of new products or refine existing ones, ensuring they align with consumer demands while meeting regulatory benchmarks. Promising food products in various markets could be identified based on their key ingredients, followed by rebranding or remarketing to emphasize their functional benefits, thereby pivoting or further appealing to health-conscious consumers. By transforming data into actionable insights, SciBite’s Functional Foods VOCab is a powerful engine for innovation in the sector.
Functional foods are more than just marketing: they are potent health agents, which bridge the gap between basic nutrition and enhanced well-being. Their popularity reflects the growing embrace of the concept of ‘food-as-medicine’ among consumers, especially in aging populations, in the pursuit of living better for longer.
With its rigorous FOSHU labeling standards, Japan not only protects its citizens but also sets an example for the world. One could argue that the nation’s high life expectancy—often linked to a traditional diet rich in plants and seafood, as well as favourable genetics—is even further bolstered by the widespread consumption of scientifically validated functional foods in its health-conscious population.
SciBite offers the Functional Foods VOCab as part of our Agriculture pack. For those keen to explore the intersection of food and medicine, our resource offers invaluable insights into how functional ingredients and dietary choices are shaping the future of health and wellness.
Scientific Curator (Japanese), SciBite
Mark Streer has served as a Scientific Curator in SciBite’s Ontologies Team since 2021, specializing in Japanese language integration. Leveraging his expertise at the nexus of biomedical research and technical translation, he brings to the table extensive knowledge of English and Japanese scientific terminology, along with enthusiasm for applying cutting-edge ML/AI technologies to ontology curation, software development, and linguistic solutions.
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