Decoding Japanese 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 navigate 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 most common.
- 青果 (Seika) – Fruit & Vegetables
- 鮮魚 (Sengyo) – Raw fish
- 食肉 (Shokuniku) – Meat. Further divided into 加工肉 (Kakoniku) – processed meat or in other words sausages, ham and other goodies, and 生肉 (Namaniku) – everything from chicken, pork and beef to ground meat and the like.
- 菓子 (Kashi) – Your kid’s favorite section. Here are all snacks and cookies, as well as the Anpanman lollipops and Hello Kitty packed waffles.
- 麺類 (Menrui) – Instant noodles, soba, udon
- デリカ (Delika) & 惣菜 (Sozai) – Appetizers, ready salads, fried bites, finger food and ready meals. Head here if you’re late from work and need to buy something delicious and filling.
- パン (Pan) – Bread
- 加工食品 (Kakoshokuhin) – Canned and packaged food. Here’s where the warm-up-and-go curry packages are, as well as tuna cans, coffee, tea, soy sauce, salad dressing, ketchup and everything else.
- 米 (Kome) – Rice
- 冷凍食品 (Reitoshokuhin) – Frosted foods
- 漬物 (Tsukemono) – Pickles
- 和日配 (Wanippai) – Japanese bits and bites, including tofu, oden, salads
- 洋日配 (Yonippai) – Dairy products: milk, ice cream, yoghurt, cheese, butter
- ドライ飲料(Dry inryo)- 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), 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.
- エネルギー/熱量 (Enerugi/netsuryoui) Calories
- たんぱく質 (Tanpakushitsu) Proteins
- 脂質 (Shishitsu) Fat
- 炭水化物 (Tansuikabutsu) Carbohydrates
- ナトリウム(Natoriumu) Sodium
- 糖質 (Toshitsu) – carbohydrates /glucide
- 食物繊維 (Shokumotsu sen-i) – Food fiber
- カルシウム (Karushium) – Calcium
- 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.
- 糖質オフ/低糖質 (Toshitsu-ofu/teitoshitsu) Low sugar
- カロリーオフ/低カロリー (Karorii-ofu/teikarorii) Low calorie
- 脂質オフ/低脂質 (Shishitu-ofu/teishishitsu) Low fat
- 塩分オフ (Enbun-ofu) Low salt
- カロリーゼロ (Karorii-zero) Calorie free
- 脂質ゼロ (Shishitsu-zero) Fat free
- 糖質ゼロ/無糖 (Toushitsu-zero/muto) Sugar free
- 卵/玉子/たまご (Tamago) Egg
- 牛乳/乳 (Gyuunyuu) Milk/Dairy products
- 小麦(粉) (Komugi(ko)) Wheat/Flour
- 落花生/ピーナッツ (Rakkasei/pinattsu) Peanut
- 蕎麦/ソバ (Soba) Buckwheat
- 海老/エビ (Ebi) Shrimp
- 蟹/カニ (Kani) Crab
- あわび/アワビ (Awabi) Abalone
- いか/イカ (Ika) Cuttlefish
- いくら/イクラ (Ikura) Salmon row
- 鮭/サケ/しゃけ/シャケ/サーモン (Sake/shake/saamon) Salmon
- 鯖/サバ (Saba) Mackerel
- 牛/牛肉/ビーフ (Ushi/gyu-niku/biifu) Beef
- 豚/豚肉/ポーク (Buta/buta-niku/pooku) Pork
- 鶏/鶏肉/チキン (Tori/tori-niku/chikin) Chicken
- ゼラチン (Zerachin) Gelatin
- 大豆/ダイズ (Daizu) Soybean
- キウイ(フルーツ) (Kiui(furuutsu) ) Kiwi fruit
- 胡桃/クルミ (Kurumi) Walnut
- バナナ (Banana) Banana
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.© Photo by GaijinPot
And if you’re cautious about where your food comes from, pay attention to the following words:
- 原産地/原産国 (Gensanchi/gensankoku) Produced in/ Made in
- 日本/国産 (Nihon/kokusan) Made in Japan
- 中国産 (Chuugoku san) Made in China
- 米国/アメリカ産 (BeikokuAmerika san) Made in America
- オーストラリア産 (Australia san) Made in Australia
- カナダ産 (Canada san) Made in Canada
- ニュージーランド産 (New Zealand 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!
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