Education, Food & Drink, Traditional & Culture

How Junk Food Makes It Into Japanese Emergency Rations

With the recent 10th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and another bit quake to keep Japan on its toes, emergency survival food is back on our minds.

When you think of emergency rations or survival food, you might imagine plastic packages of just-add-water instant rice, pouches of food or energy bars made for camping, or military rations filled with mystery meat and bread that never goes bad. As a country of earthquakes, many households keep an emergency bag easily accessible in case of a natural disaster, and fill it with first-aid along with non-perishable food items, which are often made for emergency situations.

Seaweed & salt potato chips, however, aren’t usually what we think of as survival rations. This particular flavor of potato chip is one of the most common in Japan, available at every convenience store or supermarket, and easily one of the most popular varieties of junk food.

And yet, a run of 1,500 bags of the very same seaweed & salt potato chips were recently released in special “disaster prevention” packaging. The bags forgo the snack’s regular colorful decoration, instead using a silver bag with a large square label, prominently featuring a QR code for a disaster prevention info page and the logo of Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Next to the potato chip logo is the phrase “snack foods are also disaster prevention snacks!”

These chips are part of a new project put together by the Itabashi Ward Office, Koikeya (who make the potato chips), and researchers at Tokyo Kasei University, and when you hear the reasoning explained it seems reasonable. “Since potato chips are made of potatoes, oil, and salt, they’re actually excellent sources of energy and even nutrition,” say project leaders. “In addition, since the shelf life is relatively long (6 months), potato chips work well as rolling stock.” They explained that rolling stock is when you regularly consume and replenish a stockpile of food, so there’s always emergency food available but it doesn’t sit around for years.

But potato chips aren’t the only option when it comes to snack-food-turned-emergency-food. Imuraya is a Japanese sweets manufacturer known for their red bean “yokan”, and in recent years they’ve been developing this dessert into a product that works as survival food. Yokan is a traditional dessert made with red beans, sugar, and agar, and sold in firm jelly-like blocks, so between the beans and the sugar, it would certainly give you some energy amid a natural disaster!

When Imuraya released a chocolate and red bean yokan with an extended shelf life in 2008, it sold 30 million units, and since then they’ve managed to extend the shelf life even further―from three and a half years to five and a half―without affecting the flavor. Marketing the yokan as ideal emergency food, they’ve also been careful not to include any of Japan’s 28 common food allergens. The packaging includes a holographic “備” (“prep”) meant to make it easy to find in dimly lit conditions, and more importantly, they say that the packaging is easy to understand even for those non-Japanese speakers.

Whether “eiyo-kan azuki-beans power” is actually very meaningful for an English speaker or not is certainly up for debate.

But food is food and nutrition is nutrition, whether the packaging makes sense or not. It’s certainly a clear case of dessert-turned-ration.

In Japan, where large-scale natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis are a part of life, even your average citizen is much more conscious of disaster prep than in other parts of the world. While we hope that a disaster on the scale of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake will never happen again, we can certainly do our best to prepare just in case, and if that involves seaweed & salt potato chips, all the better!


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