Saturday, August 9, 2008

Seaweed Booms for Dieters in Japan

'Kanten' Plan Uses Gelatin To Give Feeling of Fullness,
But Exercise Is Still Needed
January 3, 2006; Page D4

TOKYO -- If your New Year's resolutions include slimming down, you might want to consider the "kanten" plan, a popular Japanese dieting method that uses a gelatin made from ground-up seaweed to trick the body into thinking it is full.
The kanten plan has become all the rage in image-obsessed Japan as dieters snap up everything from powdered kanten to noodles made from the stuff. Manufacturers of kanten, known as agar-agar in English, are running their plants at full steam to keep up with demand. One manufacturer, Ina Shokuhin Kogyo KK, opened a kanten-themed restaurant in a busy Tokyo neighborhood serving kanten jellies, coffees and salad to help promote the ingredient's beneficial effects and attract consumers.
Kanten's popularity is unlikely, given that it has no flavor, is made from seaweed and is best known to many as the stuff at the bottom of petri dishes that is used to grow bacteria. But the flavorless thickening agent is a dieter's dream. It has no calories and lots of dietary fiber. It is also rich in calcium and iron.
Kanten's big appeal as a dieting aid is how it makes you feel. Kanten expands after it has been eaten, tripling in mass as it absorbs liquids in the stomach. The bulk makes dieters feel full, and, in turn, they end up eating less. "The idea behind kanten is to make it easier for people to keep control of how much they eat when they're on a diet," says Osamu Tochikubo, a doctor who teaches preventative medicine at Yokohama City University Graduate School of Medicine. He recommends dieters take about 200 grams, or seven ounces, of kanten mixed with juice before eating. "It helps take some of the stress out of dieting."
Though research on the impact of kanten on dieters is limited, some of the results are promising. Dr. Tochikubo and a team of his colleagues split 76 overweight patients into two groups. Each group received a balanced diet designed to help them lose weight. But one group got a small serving of kanten before their dinner. The kanten group lost 4.4% of their body weight over 12 weeks, while the other group lost 2%, according to findings Dr. Tochikubo published this year in the British medical journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism.
Since then, magazines have brimmed with recipes that use the stuff to give dishes bulk and take it off of dieters. Kanten has been featured on television programs, including one by Japan Broadcasting Corp., the country's prestigious national broadcaster. The ingredient has gotten so fashionable that two different brands of kanten ranked third and fifth as the year's most popular products on a Web site run by Rakuten Inc., one of Japan's biggest Internet companies.
Kanten's availability isn't limited to Japanese consumers. Plenty of American health-food Web sites offer recipes and sell kanten products, though oftentimes under the name agar or agar-agar. Both and offer two-ounce bottles of powdered kanten for less than $5 apiece. Asian-food specialty shops also are a good place to look for kanten products.
As with any diet, doctors and dieticians caution that eating kanten alone won't transform you from portly to svelte. Kanten only helps if you are eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise and, most important, eating less. They also caution that, because of the way kanten reacts once it has been consumed, it is important to make sure it has been properly prepared so that it expands in the stomach, not in the intestines.
"Kanten alone is not enough," says Takako Norioka, a nutritionist at Yokohama Soei Junior College who recommends dieters consume two grams of kanten thoroughly dissolved in a hot liquid three times a day. "But it can play a good role in helping you diet."