In a country where grilled fish is a breakfast food and many think the stinkiest soybeans are the tastiest, it stands to reason Coke is now a health drink.
Once a month, Hideaki Iwaya sits at the dinner table for pizza night with his wife and two teenage daughters. They recently revised their routine to add Coca-Cola Plus, which features a government-approved laxative ingredient, hoping it would help their bodies absorb less fat from the slices.
“It’s a paradox: a cola that is healthy but my wife likes it, my daughters prefer it,” said Mr Iwaya, 52, a car-insurance sales manager in Yokohama. “When I brought it home, I thought no one would drink it. I was mistaken.”
It isn’t just Coca-Cola Co touting the healthful side of its Japan-only Plus drink. The Japanese government has given it a gold label certifying its benefits.
Japan’s life expectancy — 87 years for women, 81 for men — is several years ahead of America’s, thanks in part to low obesity. Japanese ideas about good diet, such as green tea and fermented foods, have become mainstays in the West.
Now, the government thinks it can add to the dietary wisdom by certifying Coca-Cola Plus and other products as Foods for Specified Health Uses, or Foshu. The certified products, which have grown into a market of $US6 billion ($7.6bn) in annual sales, according to Japan Health and Nutrition Food Association, contain compounds the government deems to have a particular benefit, such as lowering cholesterol or preventing osteoporosis.
Zero-calorie Coca-Cola Plus features a substance called indigestible dextrin. It joins two other designated “healthy” colas in Japan — Pepsi Special, made by Suntory Beverage and Food under a licensing deal with PepsiCo, and Kirin Mets Cola.
Khalil Younes, an executive vice-president for marketing and new business at Coca-Cola Japan, says scientists spent a decade trying to preserve the taste of Coca-Cola while including ingredients that could win the government’s gold seal.
“We were quite ballsy in how we approached the launch,” he said, “because we were supremely confident based on our data that we had a winner, both on the functionality and also on the taste.”
Others who tried Coca-Cola Plus without studying the label have been surprised by the extent of its laxative effect. Online commenters and some people interviewed in Tokyo said they ended up with upset stomachs or worse.
“There is no danger to the human body,” Coke’s Mr Younes said. “We would never launch something that is harmful to anybody.”
Regarding side effects, he refers to the labelling: “The only caveat we have is that if you drink too much — it is in there, that you may have loose bowels from overconsumption. It depends on your condition, but what we are trying to avoid is people over-consuming in the belief that the more they drink, the more it will help.”
Coke ads show people drinking Plus with grilled beef — the result, Mr Younes said, of careful market research. Coke paired with sushi would be “a bridge too far,” he said. “I know that I would be crucified by my Japanese friends if they saw me do that.”