For those with dietary restrictions or needs, navigating food labels in Japan can feel daunting. Particularly for those whose health and wellbeing rely on being able to know exactly what is in their food, it’s important to be able to read food labels accurately.
In this article, we go over some basics of nutrition labels and common words you’ll encounter. We also offer some tips to help you feel more empowered when going food shopping or eating out.
Basics of nutrition labels
Nutrition labels in Japan are pretty similar to the ones you might be used to – except everything is a lot harder to read if you’re unfamiliar with the language! Here are some common things you’ll see on nutrition labels and how to read them in Japanese:
低脂肪 OR 低脂質
ていしぼう OR ていししつ
Teishibou OR Teishishitsu
糖質オフ OR 低糖質
とうしつ OR ていとうしつ
Tōshitsu OR Teitōshitsu
The common food groups that cause allergies are often found in Japanese food and food products. Not all allergenic ingredients have to be listed on food labels in Japan, so take extra care if you have one of these allergies.
Note that labels are typically written in two ways:
- Allergens added after each ingredient e.g. Ingredients: potato, carrot, ham (containing egg and pork), mayonnaise (containing egg and soybeans), hydrolyzed protein (containing salmon, mackerel and gelatin), seasoning (amino acid, etc.)
- Allergens added at the end of the ingredient list e.g. Ingredients: potato, carrot, ham, mayonnaise, hydrolyzed protein/seasoning (amino acid, etc.), (partially containing egg, pork, soybeans, mackerel and gelatin)
According to regulations, the following seven allergen ingredients must be listed on products that contain them:
Note that gluten isn’t identified in Japan as an allergen so for those who have an allergy to gluten or a gluten intolerance, please exercise extra caution with your food. For more insight into eating gluten-free in Japan, read our article here. Gluten is more prevalent than you might think in Japan, so take time to read through the information in our article.
There are an additional 20 recognised allergens that manufacturers are recommended to identify, but aren’t obligated to include on their ingredient statements:
If a product contains one of the 27 allergen ingredients, you should see it identified in a coloured rectangle or square.
A product might also have a note on the label stating the absence of any of the 27 allergens:
あれるぎー とくてい ざいりょうとう にじゅうなな ひんもく ふしよう。
Arerugi- tokutei zairyōtō nijūnana hinmoku fushiyō.
Free of the 27 allergen ingredients.
When eating out or buying takeaway meals, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. It’s rare for takeaway meals and bento boxes to list allergen information on the labels. To check, you can say:
__________ のアレルギーがあるんですけど, __________ が入っていますか？
__________ no arerugi- ga arun desukedo, __________ ga haitteimasu ka?
I am allergic to __________, is there __________ (in this dish)?
Whether you’re plant-based, pregnant, or choosing not to eat or drink certain things for other reasons, you’ll want to be able to recognise them on food labels in Japan. Here are some common items:
If you’re following a plant-based diet in Japan, read our article on Life as a Vegetarian in Japan for more information and tips.
When in doubt, use an app
Translation apps can be extremely helpful if you’re unsure about what a food label says in Japanese, or if you want to double-check something.
Google Translate, while not perfect, is one of the best translation apps you can find. It will translate words from images, by hovering the phone camera over the words, or by writing out the word on your phone screen. It also has a vocal translation function.
Waygo is another popular translation app that’s designed especially to read Japanese, Korean and Chinese characters. Simply point your phone at the words and away you go. It also doesn’t require an internet connection.
Read our article on the best apps for students for other helpful apps to use while living and studying in Japan.
Study Japanese in Japan with Go! Go! Nihon
The best way to improve your Japanese language skill is to fully immerse yourself in Japan while learning the language. Go! Go! Nihon is here to help – from choosing the right school and helping with the application, to support you as you settle into your new life. Contact us to see if we can help you achieve your goals in Japan.