Foods to Watch Out When In Japan

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Whether food is safe or not can be difficult to tell just by the looks and smell of it.

They can look and smell good and authentic, but that does not mean that they are safe. 

But if you are used to eating organic and quality food, you may likely be able to tell whether what you put in your mouth contains additives or unnatural stuff in them.

The Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo next year, and the number of foreigners visiting Japan during that time is expected to skyrocket.

I have seldom if ever heard from any non-Japanese friend or acquaintance that food in Japan is not good. In general, food served here in Japan are considered to be tasty and hygienic wherever you go, be it a posh place or a shabby looking ramen noodle place. 


However, guidebooks and travel websites do not include much information on safety on food.

I believe foreigners should be informed of things that may not be obvious, such as what they are purchasing and eating beforehand, so have decided to write about them in my blog.

Food additives and preservative are substances used to improve appearances, color and taste. They are also used for increasing shelf life.

In Japan, there are more than 1,500 food additives that are used. The breakdown is:

  • Designated additives: 463 items 
  • Existing additives: 365 items
  • Natural fragrances: Around 600 items
  • Food used as additives: Around 100 items 

Designated additives are those designated by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare as substances that are unlikely to be harmful to human health.  Existing additives are additives that have been around for a long time and widely used, and thus considered to be non-problematic. Natural fragrances mean natural fragrances made of plants and animals.

Moreoever, among the some 1,500 approved additives, around 350 items are petrosynthetic. 

Compared to Japan, the U.S. approves of 133, Germany 64, France 32 and U.K. 21, respectively.

Thus, the number of additives in Japan is an order of magnitude greater than those of other countries.

Furthermore, just within the last five years, 44 designated additives were approved in Japan, whereas 8 were approved in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and 4 in Canada. This alone shows how high the number of additives approved in Japan is. 

What’s more alarming is that food additives that are not approved in the U.S. and Europe because of safety concerns, are actually approved of and are used.

Food dyes are one of the representative examples.


Food color Red 2, 40, 102, 104 and Yellow 4 are legal and are widely used.

A plethora of processed food and snacks, breads and pastries contain such food colors, so you may want to keep that in mind when you shop for foodstuff and eat out in Japan.

Another flabbergasting substance that are widely prohibited around the globe but is widely used and consumed is trans fatty acid AKA “edible plastic.”

Various brands of margarines can be found on shelves at supermarkets. Plus, the majority of bread and buns and sweets and snacks contain margarine. 

Not only does Japan not limit its use, it also imposes no labeling requirement. 


Nisin is still widely used as well.

Thus, if you have plans to visit Japan, I would like to suggest that you be mindful of where and what to eat. Remember that many substances that are prohibited or restricted from being used and consumed elsewhere are extensively included in food stuff here. Just to keep your heads up.

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