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Sunday, July 29, 2001

BENTO BLUES

The added cost of convenience


Staff writer

If you've got a rumbling in your tummy but little time or money, what could be better than a bento (boxed lunch) from the nearest convenience store?

This pilot store in Jiyugaoka sells organic lunch.

But take a minute before you join the increasing number of people turning to fast-food fixes like konbini bento and read the label on the packaging; you may be surprised at just how many additives your meal includes.

Take a typical bento, which might include rice, pork cutlet, hamburger steak, potato salad, omelet and sausage. A quick scan of the ingredients might read something like: flavoring, preservatives, antioxidants, thickener, sweetener, spices, color-enhancers, artificial coloring and others.

Some of the "healthy living" goods on offer at Natural Lwason

If you rely heavily on konbini bento or other processed foods, this should raise some health concerns. Recent reports have suggested that food coloring may trigger allergies and color-enhancers may be carcinogenic. Even the plastic trays that konbini bento come in are believed to contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.

While there is as yet no generally accepted scientific evidence for these concerns, changes to the nation's diet, the introduction of genetically modified foods and even recent cases involving contaminated food products have raised public vigilance over food safety. A survey of 134 nutrition students by Mukogawa Women's University alone found that 65 percent believe ingesting food containing additives may cause cancer.

But you needn't completely avoid cheap, packaged meals, according to Toshiki Matsuura, an associate professor at the university's Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

"Many reports about the bad effects of food additives on the human body have been overstated," Matsuura said. He recommends that consumers do a little research on their own to learn more about which additives are bad for them and in which combinations.

For example, while the nitrous acid in color-enhancers, when combined with secondary amine in fish, does create carcinogenic nitrosamines, this reaction can be nullified with the addition of vitamin C in the form of vegetables, he explained.

Meanwhile, he added, worried consumers should broaden their perspective.

"It should be taken into account that the results of experiments conducted on animals or in test tubes do not accurately reflect the effects on humans," he said. "To become sick from color-enhancers, one would have to ingest 10,000 times the amount used in ham or sausage, which is just impossible."

Still, to address food safety concerns, the Food Sanitation Law was strengthened in 1995. Until then, only synthetic chemical materials were regulated, but the revised law now covers so-called natural additives (now called existing food additives) as well.

Under the law, there is a ceiling set for every additive used in food items, and, according to Matsuura, most items contain only between 5 and 10 percent of the maximum deemed safe for consumption.

If you're still worried, earlier this month convenience store chain Lawson, Inc., opened an experimental store in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo, based on the concept of "eating and living healthily" and, of course, conveniently.

At Natural Lawson, as the store is called, the shelves are lined with fresh organic vegetables and fruits from Wagoen, a farm in Chiba Prefecture, as well as bento and onigiri rice balls. Ninety percent of the latter products include brown rice instead of white, and all of the bento have less additives than their counterparts sold at other stores.

Junichi Ikeda is the mastermind behind the store and leader of the Natural Lawson project team. He said he came up with the idea because his son suffered from asthma and allergies and he was looking for a practical way to improve his family's diet.

"I wanted to offer customers food that they can eat without any worries," Ikeda said, "and that became the concept of the shop."

Still, Lawson, like its competitor stores, will continue selling standard bento, so if you find yourself roaming the aisles for a quick lunch, Matsuura of Mukogawa Women's University has these tips:

* Choose foods with the least additives possible.

"As additives are basically extras that our bodies don't need, we should try to decrease our intake of them," he said.

* Be selective in your intake of additives.

Ask yourself, Matsuura suggests, if it is really important that your ham is pink.

* And, most importantly, educate yourself.

"There is no need to be unnecessarily fearful of food additives," Matsuura said. "The important thing is to be fully aware of what kind of additives are in the food you eat."



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