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How fierce competition, lifestyle trends drive Japanese snack innovation

Competition in the Japanese snack market is incredibly fierce – and that encourages constant creativity and innovation by local manufacturers.


Some of the best Japanese snacks, sweets and beverages were on display during the recent 4th Japan Sweets & Snacks Festival organised by Saladplate in partnership with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). 


The festival included a webinar where one of the speakers, Tanner Schroeder, marketing associate at Ichigo Inc, which delivers Tokyotreat and Sakuraco subscription boxes worldwide, explained that one of the drivers of the Japanese sweets and snacks market is the constant rotation in seasonal and themed snacks coming out year-round. These include special editions for the sakura season and for autumn, sweet potato-flavoured snacks, which draw a lot of attention outside Japan. 

The annual Sakura festival season marks a peak time for the release of limited-edition Japanese sweets and snacks. [Image credit: @katerinadalemans via Twenty20.]

Two other standout features driven by competition in the sector are the reputation for quality – of both packaging and products – and the race among manufacturers to meet growing consumer demand for healthy and vegetable-based options. One trend attracts foreign customers, the other Japanese. 


“For example, Pocky may release a sakura-flavoured Pocky during spring, but the traditional milk chocolate variety will always outsell the limited-edition flavour,” explains Schroeder. “But in the Western world, these limited-edition exclusive items always tend to significantly outsell standard flavours and varieties.” 


He puts this down to the Fomo effect – Fear of Missing Out. “These exclusive seasonal varieties of candies and snacks that are only available in Japan, create an inherent desire in the Western markets for people that are interested in Japanese culture to experience them for themselves.”


Over recent years, consumers all over the world have become more health-conscious, so Japanese snack foods have had to move beyond the flashy or gimmicky packaging and clever marketing tactics to stay relevant. 


Health & wellbeing accounted for US$46 billion in Japanese food & beverage sales in 2018. A big chunk of that was functional and fortified foods – such as products with added calcium, fruit or vegetable chips.   


Joe Tanaka, country manager at Innova Market Insights, has years of experience analysing the Japanese market. He cites five top trends in sweets and snacks in Japan currently:

  • Healthy indulgence.
  • Tapping into texture.
  • The luxury appeal.
  • Protein surge.
  • Product mashups – when trends collide. 


Healthy indulgence

One in four Japanese consumers say they have increased their consumption of chocolate because they believe it is healthy. One such product is Lotte’s Lactic Acid Bacteria which mixes healthy additives with 70 per cent cocoa giving a bittersweet flavour.  


Launched in July, Glico Sunao Choco Chips and Fermented Butter Biscuits is an example of a low carbohydrate product, which offers additives like wheat germ and dietary fibre, along with oligosaccharide marketed with the message “Enjoy a healthy mind and body”. 


On the savoury side, Ajigen Saba Chi mackerel chips launched in September last year contain 70 per cent mackerel and no preservatives or colourings. Mackerel is rich in Omega-3 unsaturated fatty acid and contains EPA, DHA and plenty of calcium. 


Tapping into Texture

“Japanese consumers really love textures and they are always looking for a new mouthfeel – with 26 per cent of consumers saying indulgence influences their purchasing decision,” says Tanaka. “Fluffy, glutinous, melted, crispy, soft - Japanese people love these expressions. We have rich imagination about food and beverages.” 


A great example is the Maritozzo bun with berry sauce, whipped cream and orange peel – an adaptation of a popular Italian bun filled with fluffy cream. 


The luxury appeal 

Brands are trying to appeal to the adult audience with new flavour experiences, says Tanaka.


Japanese adult consumers are consuming desserts and ice creams to reward themselves, relax and wind down. A successful product in this category was the Haagen Dazs Mini Mochi Kinako Black Honey ice Cream launched in August – smooth ice cream with high-quality (Kinako soy flour) ‘dark roasted black honey sauce, with soft mochi on top. 


Another, Akagi Gari Gari Ichigo Strawberry Ice Bar launched in July, is based on a long-popular ice cream bar targeting children, adapted into an adult indulgence with 22 per cent strawberry juice and significantly more sophisticated packaging design to create a sense of luxury indulgence. 


And Lotte in March launched a Strawberry Brandy-flavoured chocolate bar, a limited-edition adult indulgence for winter. 


“The bottom line is the product pricing should be affordable and a visible premium offer to an adult,” says Tanaka.


Protein surge

The popularity of protein reached Japan relatively late compared to other countries but the market is now catching up. The number of new protein-packed products launched in 2020 was up 36 per cent compared with 2016. 


“Consumers are demanding products with higher amounts of protein and on-pack messages that reflect the higher protein content.”


Product mashups – when trends collide

Three out of five global consumers say they are interested in trying new sensory experiences such as aromas, tastes, textures, colours and sensations and that trend is driving cross-category innovations, says Tanaka. “This is a global phenomenon and Japan is no exception. We are no longer satisfied with normal things. Discovery is one of the key words.”


For example, snack food brand Pringles collaborated with instant ramen brand Super Cup instant noodles to produce Pringles chips flavoured with a chicken bone soy sauce and an Aged Miso Ramen flavour. Chocolate Almond Milk Stout liquor inspired by KitKat was brewed using the same cacao powder used to make KitKat.


The top 5 suppliers from the Japan Sweets & Snacks Festival 

Meanwhile, at the end of the festival this month, the Saladplate team ranked the five suppliers participating who drew the greatest number of queries about their products. The results underline the trends discussed by Tanaka and Schroeder above. 


PLANTz Corporation, which is seeking resellers and customers in many Asia-Pacific markets, specialises in plant-based natural supplements. 


The company’s star product is Aojiru green juice, a 100-per-cent plant-based healthy drink made from fresh leaves such as young barley, kale or mulberry leaves which are dried, powdered and blended. The drinks contain plenty of natural vitamins and minerals, allowing consumers to consume them daily in place of artificial supplements and tablets.

PLANTz Green Juice

Marukai Corporation has been selling juices and beverages at department stores and high-quality supermarkets in Japan for more than 25 years. Junzo-sen is the company’s first brand and Dean & Co, a sister brand, both help sustain healthy, delicious lifestyles. Since Marukai started exporting in 2018, sales overseas have been growing dramatically mainly in the US and Asia.

Marukai Blueberry Juice

CHOKA’S is a Japanese sweet maker producing confectionery for the whole family, but specialising in treats for infants. 


CHOKA says demand for its products internationally is growing as more and more foreigners visit Japan and experience the safety and high quality of its foods. Now they are seeking such products from their home countries.

CHOKA'S Soy & Fiber Snack

Nara Shogaku works with manufacturers of sweets and snacks to develop the best quality products at the right price. The company, whose name includes the kanji character which represents ‘a sign of good omens’, has been trading for more than 90 years. It supplies products under its own name or undertakes OEM for clients.

Nara Shogaku Snacks

YiEM Store aims to be a global company that contributes sustainably to society. Its products include SAKURA SAKURI rice flour cookies for consumers seeking healthy treats. They are made with a dough containing rice flour and calcium in place of wheat flour.

Another mainstream product is the 100-per-cent natural Shugo Densetsu, a vegetable-based hangover-prevention product, a citrus drink and carrot puree. 

YiEM's Sakura Sakuri
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