Japanese Decoded: Nutrition Labels
Savvy's Guide To Stress-Free Grocery Shopping
A cheat sheet of all you need to know for efficient and safe grocery shopping in Japan.
Have you ever felt like Alice in Wonderland when visiting a Japanese supermarket? Or found yourself spending more time than you have staring at a package, trying to figure out what the heck you’re looking at?
Been there, done that. Don’t feel embarrassed—we’ve all made at least one prayer to the god of labels asking for some secret knowledge. For those of you who shop regularly and are regular 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 navigating the supermarket and deciphering nutrition labels and ingredients.
Navigating The Supermarket
Most Japanese supermarkets are not difficult to navigate as they are more or less the same as in other countries. At times, though, it’s easy to get lost when searching for the perfect soba or ingredients for that home-inspired gravy sauce. You can orient yourself by looking at the product category sections, usually separated by green banners hanging from the ceiling. Below are the names of the most common ones.
|青果||seika||Fruit & vegetables|
|加工肉||kakoniku||Processed meat or in other words sausages, ham and other goodies|
|生肉||namaniku||Everything from chicken, pork, and beef to ground meat and the like|
|菓子||kashi||Snacks and cookies|
|麺類||menrui||Instant noodles, soba, udon|
|デリカ or 惣菜||delika or sozai||Appetizers, ready salads, fried bites, finger food and ready meals|
|加工食品||kakoshokuhin||Canned and packaged food|
||Japanese bits and bites, including tofu, oden, salads
||Dairy products: milk, ice cream, yoghurt, cheese, butter
||Juice, canned coffee, mineral water
Now that you’ve found the proper grocery category, let’s look at the product labels!
Below is the back of a bag of rice crackers (senbei) carrying a standard Japanese nutrition label. On the top left, we see the nutritional information (栄養成分表, eiyou seibun you), which contains all the basic nutrition facts about the product, such as grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. On the middle left, above the bar code, we see a list of common allergens, 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.
Here are common terms you can see on those labels.
|食物繊維||shokumotsu sen-i||Food fiber|
|食塩相当量||shokuen soto ryo||Sodium chloride amount|
Food Restrictions & Allergens
Ok, you have the right product in your hands, it looks familiar, but you’re not quite sure if it contains potential ingredients you may be allergic to or simply want to avoid. Refer to the list below, which contains useful phrases for food restrictions and ingredients to avoid if you have allergies or restrictions—or to this guide if you need more detailed terms for natural foods and dietary restrictions.
Price labels usually contain information on when the product had been manufactured, the best before date, net quantity, production area, and, uh, the price. Below is a prime example. And if you see anything written in yellow and red, it’s usually a special promotion or a discounted product.
And if you’re cautious about where your food comes from, pay attention to the following words:
|原産地/原産国||gensanchi/gensan koku||Produced in/Made in|
|日本/国産||nihon/koku san||Made in Japan|
|中国産||chuugoku san||Made in China|
|米国/アメリカ産||beikoku/amerika san||Made in America|
|オーストラリア産||oosutoraria san||Made in Australia|
|カナダ産||kanada san||Made in Canada|
|ニュージーランド産||nyuu jiirando san||Made in New Zealand|
|タイ産||tai san||Made in Thailand|
With new products and imports increasing on a daily basis, this is by no means a complete guide, but we hope your shopping will be slightly more efficient and less stressful. And if we’ve missed any of your favorite products or important ingredients, leave us a comment. We also welcome your funny stories related to reading those labels wrongly…we certainly have our fair share too!