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Things Go Better With Coke, Laxative Edition

7 Jan 2018 7:43 pm
By Suryatapa Bhattacharya 

TOKYO -- 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," says Mr. Iwaya, 52, an automobile-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 $6 billion 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 Ltd. under a licensing deal with PepsiCo, and Kirin Mets Cola from Kirin Beverage Co.

Michiko Kamiyama, a lawyer with a group called Food Safety Citizens' Watch that monitors food safety issues on behalf of consumers, wonders whether the government should be endorsing Coke and Pepsi as healthful. A vigorous 77, Ms. Kamiyama says she didn't get that way downing lots of carbonated drinks.

"If you have a well-balanced diet and do an appropriate amount of exercise then you don't need them," says Ms. Kamiyama of the certified foods and drinks. "I personally think it is totally ineffective."

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 says, "because we were supremely confident based on our data that we had a winner, both on the functionality and also on the taste."

Tominaga Ozawa, a retired investor, says he shares doubts about health benefits but figures there is nothing to lose by adding some fibrous fizziness to his diet. Mr. Ozawa, 70, says he took to drinking Coca-Cola Plus almost immediately after it went on sale in Japan in March.

At least once a week, he plays 18 holes of golf. After nine holes, he returns to the clubhouse and buys a Coca-Cola Plus before sitting down to lunch. "I think it's good," he says. He prefers his cola time in solitude because "in Japan, your image can suffer if you say you drink cola."

Miho Katori, 33, a Tokyo restaurant worker, stocks her fridge with at least two 470-milliliter bottles of Coca-Cola Plus at about $1.50 each. The government's gold seal prompted her to switch from a diet cola, she says, in hopes the fat-absorption properties of the dextrin would help her stay slim.

She found she liked the drink. "I don't know if it's effective or not," she says, "but it looks like it is good for my health because it has a Foshu stamp."

Among the drink's detractors is Seiji Miyata, 54, an art director at a Tokyo printing agency. He turned to artificially sweetened drinks after he discovered he had diabetes and found himself yearning for sweets. "As soon as I was diagnosed," he says, "I started to love whisky, chocolate, everything that's sweet."

Craving a sweet cola one weekend morning, he pulled into a convenience store and found the new white-coated Coca-Cola Plus bottle. The drink tasted healthful -- and, he thought, awful.

He wanted to dump it right away, but "we're Japanese," so he found a public ash bin into which he discreetly drained the liquid.

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 says. "We would never launch something that is harmful to anybody."

Regarding side effects, he refers to the labeling: "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."

On the flip side, Hideo Eguchi, a 79-year-old who works as a hair stylist, says, "I like the feeling of the burps you get from drinking this."

Coca-Cola declines to give sales figures for Plus but says it is a success. It says low-sugar or sugarless drinks -- many of them teas, coffees and other noncolas -- account for 62% of Coke's sales in Japan.

In Japan's beverage market, companies have been known to introduce as many as 100 new drinks a year. The competitiveness "is just mind-boggling," says Coke's Mr. Younes.

Coke ads show people drinking Plus with grilled beef -- the result, he says, of careful market research.

Coke paired with sushi would be "a bridge too far," he says. "I know that I would be crucified by my Japanese friends if they saw me do that."

--Chieko Tsuneoka contributed to this article.
 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 07, 2018 14:43 ET (19:43 GMT)

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