Emulate the snacking habits of the longest living people on the planet: get skinny, prevent cancer and heart disease, feel healthier, and fart less. In this article towards the end, you'll learn one easy habit change that could easily save your life.
When I was composing the introduction of this post in my mind while taking a bath- very Japanese- I thought about who was going to be my audience.
For a few of you, I imagined that the photos of traditional Japanese snacks I’ve shared below would evoke some long-lost nostalgic memories from your childhood. Natsukashii!
I do not belong in this group.
Others of you, who may have never been to Japan before, might consider this food to be weird, foreign, or interesting (…a polite way of saying weird or gross-looking).
The truth is, I never would have imagined that writing about a topic as trivial as snack food you can buy at convenience stores turning out to be as meaningful as it did for me.
Today brought back memories of eating real popcorn popped over a stove and Old Dutch pretzel rods in the yellow bag on the Wachowiak’s 1980s brown couch and cheddar cheese goldfish crackers and homemade Chex Mix on the boat in Door County.
Then, I came to the realization that because I was born on the North American continent, all the snacks I grew up eating were basically products of American farms: potatoes, corn, or wheat with sugar, salt, oil, and maybe some Wisconsin dairy– sour cream, powdered neon orange cheese.
The raw food materials available on the island of the rising sun are inevitably different.
At every 7-11 in Japan, you’ll find snacks made from seaweed, kelp, fish, soybeans, vinegar, plum, and rice*.
I wasn’t lucky enough to be born as a Japanese girl, who have an average life expectancy of 87! As an American male, mine is 76.9, but I’m here now and I’m taking notes!
Here’s the incomplete list of my favorite konbini* snacks: nutrient-rich, protein-packed for energy, low carb, low sugar.
“New behaviors aren’t that hard once you start them.” –Tim Ferriss in The 4 Hour Body.
“Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off.” –Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid
*but I avoid the rice crackers
*konbini = convenience store in Japanese
PLUM FLAVORED WAKAME
This seaweed snack is a standard on the shelf at any convenience store in Japan. On the package I’m holding right now it says that this delicious, healthy snack from the sea will feel shyaki-shyaki on my teeth. Yay to that. Shyaki-shyaki. “With the fragrance of plum, relish its sukiri-ness.” Obviously I need some help translating.
Kanro brand also says it’s easy to eat with a toothpick which just so happens to be attached on the back of the package. With yet another Japanese onomatopoei they conclude, “for the time you are a little hungry (only 22 calories hungry), this healthy snack will be absolutely pittari!”
Before you get overly excited, the sour plum taste and crisp and chewy, slightly leathery texture with a hint of sea slime is likely an acquired taste for many with a Western palate. It took me 12 years in Japan before I started snacking on pickled seaweed. Vinegary, salty, and a little sweet– it tastes exactly like a wet kiss from a mermaid. Or it’s like chewing on strips of swamp-marinated bike tire. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Have a busy life and need to grab a healthy snack on the go? Here is the “soylution” (their pun, not mine). I’m passionate about SoyJoy. They’re made by Otsuka Pharmaceutical, the same company that brought us Pocari Sweat, the sports drink. As you can see, they’ve certainly stepped up their game at naming products. SoyJoy are pretty awesome.
But if you’re used to munching on chocolate chip cookies like Cookie Monster, then your first SoyJoy is going to taste like sawdust-flavored cardboard. Unfortunately, their website says that the brand has been discontinued in the US.
Apparently chocolate chip cookies trump SoyJoy, but not so in Japan. The flavors that bring me the most joy are almond & chocolate, peanut, banana, and my new favorite kokuto & sanzashi (brown sugar and hawthorn). And now with the new texture and flavors of SoyJoy Crispy bars, it’s easy to eat two a day and never get sick of them. The one drawback of SoyJoy is that they contain some added sugar: 10 grams of sugariness * total on average per bar.
2019 UPDATE: Many nutritionists now recommend avoiding processed soy products. Still, SoyJoy helped get me to where I am now, but I almost never eat them anymore.
*Nutrition labels in Japan don’t indicate how many carbohydrates come from sugar. You’ll see the measurement of 糖質 (toushitsu) which means saccharinity or amount of glucides. It can be sucrose, lactose, fructose, glucose, whatever.
If you are in search of a “mellow” low-calorie diet snack rich in protein, why not tear open a bag of almondo fishu and fill your palm? I can hear my sister respond, “Why not? Because they have EYES.” For the rest of you besides Liz and handful of other squeamish folks, discover the perfect mix of American sliced almonds and minnows from Seto Inland Sea. They’re baby iwashi (sardines). Even I can read the list of ingredient in Japanese: アーモンド = a-mon-do (almond) and 小魚= ko-zakana (小= small 魚= fish). Now some of you can go to 7-11 and read the back of the package of almondo fishu and impress your friends.
KYOTO UJI MATCHA FLAVORED OSHABURI KOMBU
This is one of my newest discoveries: oshaburi kombu. Oshaburi means pacifier, or what my family would call a nuk or nuk-nuk, like the one Maggie in The Simpsons sucks on. You won’t make the characteristic sucking sound Maggie Simpson is famous for with strips of kombu in your mouth, but the name pacifier konbu will make total sense. On the upper lefthand corner of the package, you’ll see the company logo: a cherry blossom marked with 都 (miyako). Miyako means capital, referring to Kyoto (京都), the old capital of Japan where the founder was born in 1912.
Shoichi Nakano apprenticed at a konbu wholesaler in Sakai City, Osaka shortly after graduating from elementary school. For the young boy daily life was harsh; inside the warehouse he chewed on cut off pieces of kelp as a substitute for a snack. Soaked in vinegar to make it soft– he asked himself if the kelp were sweetened could it be sold as a confectionary.
More than 85 years later, you can still buy the original vinegar-flavored Miyako Kombu in the red package as well as 15 different kinds of oshaburi kombu. The kombu inside the green package above is flavored with Uji matcha tea from Kyoto. The kelp actually comes from from the coast of Hakodate in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan nowhere near Kyoto. In those days, the kelp was brought to Sakai through the maritime traffic passage of the Sea of Japan, which was once said to be called the “Kombu Road”.
ALMOND AND MACADAMIA NUTS
On the front of the package it says that this is a rich, flavorful mix of “roasting aroma almonds” and macadamia nuts. Google Translate help me out here! Lawson has done it again- when was the last time we had innovation like this in the world of nuts? The beauty is in its simplicity. It’s genius. In the US, we all know what happens to the bowl of mixed nuts that are put out at a family holiday gathering.
Everyone picks out all the pecans, walnuts, and cashews, and you’re left with the Brazil nuts and maybe a scattering of peanuts. People are picky. And what happens to the one selfless person who doesn’t pick out his favorite nuts? He blindly tosses a handful into his mouth and almost cracks a molar on a pistachio that’s still in its shell. So what happens when you put only two kinds of nuts in one bag? Flavorsynthesis.
Almonds and macadamia nuts or they also have cashew nuts and almonds– I just feel sorry for those of you living outside of Japan. For now you’re gonna have to make your own nut pairings. Strangely enough, Lawson Station originated in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio but now only exists as a Japanese company. The good news is that there are now two Lawson in Hawaii and expansion to both Hawaii and the mainland U.S. is planned, with 30 stores planned for Hawaii alone over the next three years. Source: Wikipedia
CRISPY WAKAME WITH SESAME
I’m eating a bag of these as I type. Let me restate that: I am finishing my bag of pari-pari goma wakame before I type another sentence. These are the potato chips of the sea, which is why I think they are healthy.
This snack is one of my potato chip replacements when I’m craving salt and crunch. With the same magic combination of sweet, salt, and oil that triggers our brain to make us eat an entire canister of sour cream and onion Pringles but will leave you with seaweed-sesame oil breath instead of onion and not all the empty carbs.
Note: afterwards, check the bathroom mirror. Your teeth may make you look like a green slime monster.
CRUNCHY KONNYAKU CHIPS
Konnyaku is a perenial plant native to Eastern and Southeastern Asia. Flour or jelly is made from the corm, the bulbous tuber-looking thing at the root of the plant. It’s a potato, but it’s not a potato. You may have had konnyaku if you’ve ever eaten oden or sukiyaki. Noodles made from konnyaku are called shirataki. It’s either grey or white, chewy, and tastes like… nothing. Konnyaku by itself is almost a calorie-free food. It’s mostly water with a little bit of fiber. That’s why you can eat the whole bag of these chips and only consume 61 calories. My best attempt at describing the taste and texture is deep-fried pork rinds for vegans, seaweed flavor. The downside is the bag is tiny (15 grams) and the 8.8 grams of sugariness.
What's in the Bag?
Do you know eating which of these snacks could cut your risk for heart attacks and heart disease in half? The bag is open– let’s dig in!
PLUM FLAVORED WAKAME
Natural Lawson: 132 ¥
22 g: 22 kcal
Nutrition facts: Author of You Are What You Eat Cookbook, Nutritionist Gillian McKeith, Ph.D., calls wakame the woman’s seaweed because it’s loaded with osteoporosis-preventing calcium and magnesium and acts as a diuretic (which helps to reduce bloating). Wakame’s pigment, fucoxanthin, is known to improve insulin resistance, and a 2010 study found that fucoxanthin burns fatty tissue. Source: www.oprah.com
In addition to promoting fat burning, reversing diabetes, and strengthening bones, wakame helps balance hormones and supports a healthy pregnancy. Japan has dramatically lower rates of breast cancer than Western countries. There’s a small body of research that suggests there’s a relationship between seaweed and a decreased risk of breast cancer. Source: www.draxe.com
Umeboshi (pickled plums) and umeboshi paste is also supposed to be awesome for squashing your sugar cravings. Source: www.shape.com
Allergy precautions: shrimp, wheat, milk, beans
“The US has the highest rates of cancer of any country on the planet. And according to the American Cancer Society, migration studies show that if you were to move here from somewhere like Japan, your likelihood of developing cancer increases fourfold.
-Robyn O’Brien, TEDx Austin 2011
7-11: 123 ¥
30 g: 130-145 calories per bar
Nutrition facts: SoyJoy are made from baked whole soy beans, non-GMO all-natural ingredients, and real fruit. They contain no artificial anything or hydrogenated oils. According to their website, SoyJoy have a low glycemic index. But be careful with these addictive pleasure bars: they are dangerously delicious. The peanut and almond & chocolate flavors have the lowest sugariness.
Allergy precautions: nut or seed allergies, gluten free
7-11: 107 ¥
20 g: 107 kcal
Nutrition facts: This combo makes for a low calorie, high protein snack. Almonds are actually healthier with the skins on, not blanched like these ones. The skin contains flavonoids that act as antioxidants and enhance the effect of vitamin E. These nuts are one of the richest sources of vitamin E, which seems to protect against UV light damage and Alzheimer’s disease. Source: theguardian.com
Sardines are loaded with omega-3 fats. The benefits of omega-3s are legion. However, baked or boiled fish is associated with more benefit from heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than dried fish. Source: The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S. and The American Heart Association
Still, these little guys are loaded with calcium.
Allergy precautions: fish/seafood, tree nuts, wheat, sesame, soy
Factory manufactures products including: egg, milk, peanut, shirmp, and crab
KYOTO UJI MATCHA FLAVORED OSHABURI KOMBU
Natural Lawson : 130 ¥
11 g: 28 kcal
Nutrition facts: Kombu is known for reducing blood cholesterol and hypertension. It’s high in iodine, which is essential for thyroid functioning; iron, which helps carry oxygen to the cells; calcium, which builds bones and teeth; as well as vitamins A and C, which support eyes and immunity. Add kombu to beans “the magical fruit” and it has an almost magical ability to render them more digestible and less gas-producing. Source: The Washington Post
Safety warning: According to natural-foods expert Rebecca Wood, kombu should not be eaten excessively during pregnancy. Source: The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth
Allergy precautions: none provided
ALMOND AND MACADAMIA NUTS
Lawson: 227 ¥
49 g : 297 kcal
Nutrition facts: People who eat nuts regularly are less likely to have heart attacks or heart disease (30 – 50 % lower risk!). The fat in nuts is healthy fat. Almonds are rich in monounsaturated fat, the key fat in the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown in virtually every research study to be associated with lower levels of heart diseases and cancer, not to mention longer life spans. Eaten in moderation, almonds also help with weight loss. Macadamia nuts are very high in calories, but the oil in them is more than 80 percent monounsaturated, more than any other nut. Source: The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth
Allergy precautions: tree nuts (duh.)
18 g: 70 kcal
Nutrition facts: There is practically no group of plants on the planet richer in nutrients, minerals, and trace minerals than seaweed. Wakame contains more than ten times the calcium of milk. It has four times the iron in beef. Source: The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth However, the nutrition data on the package of this particular snack does not indicate that it contains calcium.
Safety warnings: Because of their high iodine content, you should only eat wakame and kombu in moderation and if you do not have any thyroid conditions. The wakame in this snack is grown in China, where they do not have the same environmental and food safety regulations as Japan. There is a risk that sea vegetables grown in polluted waters absorb pollutants such as heavy metals.
Allergy precautions: milk
*You can technically eat seaweed if you have a seafood allergy, but you should use caution.
Factory manufactures products including: wheat, egg, peanut, shrimp, and crab
CRUNCHY KONNYAKU CHIPS
Choice of two flavors: seaweed and consommé
Natural Lawson or Lawson: 148 ¥
15 g: 61 kcal
Nutrition facts: These are “body friendly” chips with zero trans fatty acids, 2.9 grams of fiber, and 103 mg calcium. Konnyaku by itself has almost no calories, no sugar, and no fat. An entire block of it you buy at the supermarket usually contains only about 10 calories. Preliminary evidence suggests that glucomannan, the dietary fiber in konnyaku, may promote weight loss at doses of 1-4 grams per day by promoting satiety and by blocking some calories from being absorbed in the body. Source: www.webmd.com This is why konnyaku is supposedly called “broom for the stomach” in Japan. Anyway, it has has been an ingredient in Japanese cooking for over 1500 years so it can’t be bad. ‘No calorie’ konnyaku noodles seem to be gaining some popularity in the West as a low carb replacement for pasta.
Factory manufactures products including: wheat, milk, shrimp and crab.
Lydia Harris: What are you talking about? (over the phone from the US)
Bob Harris: I don’t know. I just want to… get healthy. I would like to start taking better care of myself. I’d like to start eating healthier- I don’t want all that pasta. I would like to start eating like Japanese food.
Lydia Harris: Well, why don’t you just stay there and you can have it every day?
–Bill Murray in the movie Lost in Translation
“Nothing tastes as good as fit and strong feels.”
“Focus on progress, not on perfection.”
-Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth
Thank you for your time! ! Was it helpful? My sincere hope is that you read this long post and it inspired you in some small way. American food culture has already stamped its size 11 Nike swoosh labeled foot here in Japan– my mission with this blog is to stamp back, with a big ol’ Godzilla foot.
If you have any questions, insights, or criticism, I would really appreciate your comments and suggestions to improve my content. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment, send me your thoughts, or share with your friends. Arigato! \(^0^)/