“The Key to Building Up Good Health Is Reasonable Coexistence with Microorganisms"

  A adviser to The Japan Food Research Laboratory
Dr. Minoru Saitoh

In postwar days, the Japanese sought improvements in the quality of life, in particular pursuing "palatability" in food. In those years, foods in general were processed so as to appeal to "the sense of taste" as their main emphasis. In addition, with the arrival of an aging society and increasing awareness of health, there is lately an increasing tendency for people to attach importance to the "quality" of food. We conducted an interview with Dr. Minoru Saitoh, adviser to The Japan Food Research Laboratory, asking about "the history of and changes in food" in Japan and its people since postwar times, and the role of microorganisms relevant to natural fermented food that make an inportant contribution in building constitutions for longevity.
――Could you tell us about the development of gastronomic culture in Japan since postwar.

Saito: When World War II came to an end in 1945, it would be possible to say that the food processing industry that has a direct involvement in dietary life started from "zero". Since then, Japanese dietary habits came to be considered from the standpoint of dietetics with the intention of improving fundamental nutritional circumstanecs. The gastronomic culture in Japan went through many changes after that, which could be categorized chronologically as follows.

First of all, in the 1950s, the food situation in Japan was so poor that people ate anything that they could get hold of. Later, instant food appeared, and with it the arrival of days when we came to "taste food with the tongue." Then, there came a transition to an age of "sensing food with the nose" as infrastructures of the food and flavor industry gradually advanced. During approximately twenty years between the above and 1970s, the situations followed this path of change.

From around 1975, we had the beginning of a period of high economic growth in Japan. Along with the economic expansion, a large volume of food of a variety of different kinds flooded onto the market. Perhaps we can say that this period was an era of "eating food with eyes", meaning that foods attracted attention through the visual sense.

About this time, people came to pay attention to food safety as well, because of the influence of the use of food additives and food contamination. In the 1980s, food came to be manufactured by scientific processing methods and the age shifted to a time of "eating food with the brain." People came to consume food, while taking into account the nature and volume of nutritional elements in it. And now, people show more interest in foods containing low sugar, low fats and low calorific value, which we may regard as a resultant reflection of an age of gluttony.

――It appears that, now, we have entered into an age in which food quality, including function and safety, is sought after.

Saito: One aspect of foods is that they satisfy a need. But, when we access them, we have to think of many factors. My opinion is that the value of food should not be judged by factors such as place and method of production, external appearance and taste and, in addition, economic efficiency and marketing potential. Rather it should be judged by "grades of quality" based on the fundamental elements which it possesses. I believe that the true value of food can be assessed by the types of inherent ingredients relevant to nutrition, to what extent such components are preserved in them and, in addition, the levels of consideration of hygienic factors given to them.

Nowadays, many kinds of food are packaged to have a good presentation, being displayed at storefronts. Current dietary life, in there are abundant food varieties, is supported by these packaged foods. And, in many cases, consumers are inclined to choose food with good presentation. But it is impossible to state clearly whether or not such food is safe enough for the human body. So I do not think it right to assess foods from the purely visual and economical standpoints. A healthy body is made up of sound nutritional food, and that could also lead to maintaining a sound spirit.

――Please let us have your views about the roles of functional food and nutritional supplements.

Saito: The Ministry of Health and Welfare recommends taking 30 kinds of foodstuffs a day in order to maintain health. But, I think that it would be a bit difficult for consumers to know what kinds of ingredients are covered, and at what amounts such nutritional elements are included in them. Rather, it would be easy to take five kinds of cereals which the Japanese have eaten traditionally such as foxtail millet, barnyardgrass and broomcorn millet, etc., and natto or fermented soybeans in order to maintain body health. These foodstuffs are indispensable for building up health.

Admitting the above, we also have, on the other hand, the desire to continuously improve the quality of life. The same applies to food. We always have a desire to eat something "delicious." Therefore, we tend to look for food with palatability and smoothness. If this were practised, it could result in the lack of certain kinds of nutritional elements due to processing of the food, when viewed from the standpoint of nutrition. There would then emerge a need for food that supplements the missing ingredients. In America, there are some kinds of such food that supplements the lost nutrition, referred to as "nutraceuticals."

In Japan, an aging society is developing. Older people usually take a small amount of food, which is insufficient in terms of absolute nutritional requirements. So the nutritional defect has to be replenished with such ingredients.


――Could you tell us about the distinct roles of foods and pharmaceutical products?

Saito:: Providing you separate each of such substances depending on your objectives, it should work well. As for pharmaceutical products, they contain a single purified ingredient, showing efficacy in only small doses. Regarding food, it contains substantial kinds of nutritional elements, co-existing with beneficial microorganisms, and leading our bodies to a healthy state. Recently, statements against bacteria came to be made, usually as we heard reports of O-157 Escherichia coli infection with increasing frequency. Consumers are apt to overreact against bacteria, intensifying the idea of getting rid of them. But there are indigenous bacteria such as the true fungi and other bacteria even resident in a human body, as well as any food, all the time and with which mankind has always been in a symbiotic relationship. It would be true to say that natural fermented food such as miso or bean paste, and natto, which are fruits produced by microorganisms, contributed a lot to building the constitutions of the Japanese that can live long. In order to build up health, it is necessary for us to consider how reasonably and amicably we have to coexist with them.

  A adviser to The Japan
  Food Research Laboratory

        Dr. Minoru Saitoh
Copyright(C)2004 JAFRA. All rights reserved.