Baking in Japan: A tale of rice and wheat

by Laurie Gorton
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Japan’s legacy in rice plus the government’s push for food self-sufficiency are shaping trends in the country’s market for commercial baked foods.

Interest in healthy eating is reshaping wholesale bakery offerings, said Chiaki Watanabe, a reporter for Panka Shinbun (Japan Bread & Cake Newspaper), Tokyo. She spoke with Baking & Snack as part of an exclusive report on global bakery trends in its September issue.

Life expectancies are lofty: 80 years for men and 86 years for women.

“This is one of the reasons that health consciousness is high in Japan,” she said.

Catering to health-conscious consumers, a leading baker succeeded in producing good-tasting bread made with bran in 2013, observing that bran is effective in retarding blood sugar increases.

“Although this bread could not be said to be a smash hit, it became the center of attention with many repeat sales,” Ms. Watanabe said.

A different bakery succeeded in producing bread with a rare form of sugar that also aids in controlling blood sugar. Yet another brought out bread made with prune paste substituting for fats and oils.

As in other developed countries, sliced white pan bread sales are slowly receding in Japan. Many supermarkets price bread as a loss-leader, but the advent of premium bread, such as the “golden bread” offered in 340-gram (12-oz) portions and priced at $2.50, changed this picture.

“It went on the market in April last year and sold 25 million meals in six months,” Ms. Watanabe said.

Golden Bread is flavored with honey and sold in 7-Eleven stores throughout Japan.

Because of Japan’s legacy in rice, the government encourages more rice consumption. This opened up a new variety: rice bread.

“Japanese breads are mostly made from imported wheat flours, but the price of this flour has increased substantially,” said Kiyoko Kubomura, principal, Kubomura Food Advisory Consultants, Tokyo.

The preference is for springy, soft, fluffy bread, she explained.

“And it must have good nutritional value, and rice bread fits this nicely,” she said.

Rice bread is made from a mixture of wheat and rice flours and finds a good market in school lunch. Because of childhood allergies, Japanese researchers are working to produce 100% rice flour bread, omitting the wheat component altogether.

“In 2010, the National Food Institute developed a 100% rice flour bun,” Ms. Kubomura said. Glutathione aids fermentation, and potato flour controls staleness and improves texture.

Bread consumption is increasing in South Korea, growing in retail sales value by 5% in 2013, according to Euromonitor International, a market research provider based at London. Changes in the dining habits of consumers are responsible,

“Local consumers are becoming familiar with having bread at breakfast to replace their traditional meal style,” Euromonitor said. “And they consider cakes and pastries as more like refreshments.”

Consumers in Singapore, another of the Asian Tiger countries, are shifting their buying habits to favor healthy, functional baked goods such as whole grain, low-G.I. and gluten-free bread, although they still prefer white bread, Euromonitor noted.

“Asia Pacific is a shining star, although bread is not yet an everyday product there,” observed Lamine Lahouasnia, Euromonitor’s head of packaged food. “But even with the competing staples, interest in Western cuisine — and bread — rises every time KFC opens another store in China.”
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