Food Allergies in Japan

By
Jan 23, 2017

Food Allergies in Japan

Dealing with food allergies can be a hassle anywhere, but it can be especially worrisome when trying to find something safe to eat in a foreign country. Here are some tips for what to ask when you’re eating out and what to look for when cooking meals on your own.

Ingredient Labels

If you’re like me, whenever you receive a snack from a friend or buy a new product, the first thing you look for is the ingredient label. If you have a severe food allergy, you’re probably already familiar with what to look for and how to read the fine print back home, but, if you can’t read the label yourself; how can you ever be absolutely sure that what you’re eating is safe? Here are some basic things to look for if you have the chance to see the ingredients yourself.

In general, there are 7 major allergens that are commonly listed on food packaging. These are:

  1. えび – “ebi” (shrimp)
  2. かに – “kani” (crab)
  3. 小麦 – “komugi” (wheat)
  4. そば – “soba” (buckwheat)
  5. 卵 – “tamago” (egg)
  6. 乳 – “nyu” (milk)
  7. 落花生 – “rakkasei” (peanuts)

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and unfortunately it isn’t always as easy as just memorizing the characters to find what you’re looking for. The words above are not always listed in the same fashion, e.g. they could be written in any three of the Japanese scripts: in kanjihiragana, or katakana. For example:

  • 海老 / えび / エビ – These are all read as “ebi,” meaning shrimp.
  • 卵 / たまご / タマゴ – Again, these all have the same reading: “tamago,” meaning egg.
  • 落花生 / ピーナッツ – Here, the words themselves are different: “rakkasei” vs. the foreign loan word “piinattsu.”

In the last example, it can be particularly confusing because both words can be used to talk about the same thing (however technically speaking “rakkasei” is used to refer to the shelled peanut, whereas “piinattsu” more commonly refers to the “nut” inside). Needless to say, if you’re not too confident in your reading ability, it’s best to ask a Japanese friend to check just to be safe.

Read the Fine Print

If your food allergy is severe, you know that even if a product doesn’t have allergens in it, it may have come in contact with other allergens in the factory where it was made. If you need to know details such as this, you probably are already familiar with skimming to the bottom of the ingredients list to read the fine print. Fortunately, ingredient labels are structured in much the same way as those in the United States. Here’s an example of an ingredient label of a popular snack:

When confronted with a wall of text like this, it can be a little daunting to quickly tell if there are any allergens that you need to be aware of before you take a bite. However, there are two places that are always good places to check.

1. In the photo on the left, the ingredients list is shown in detail. Circled in red is the end of the ingredients list, where usually any major allergens will be written inside parenthesis. Here the characters 大豆 (“daizu” – soy) can be seen. While most of the time allergens will be listed at the end of an ingredients list as shown above, there are cases where not everything is included, so if you are unsure, be sure to either read through the whole list yourself or have a friend check it for you.

2. You’ll usually find the information shown in this next photo just below the main ingredients list. Here is where companies will usually include a warning about where the product was made and if it possibly came into contact with any allergens on the same manufacturing line. Circled in red we can see the characters for 卵 (“tamago” – egg) and ピーナッツ (“piinattsu” – peanuts). If you have a severe allergy and cannot risk even trace amounts of an allergen, it’s best to look for this information in addition to what’s written in the ingredients list.

What to Ask at a Restaurant

While you might feel safer sticking to foods and restaurants you know at first, eventually you’re going to want to try and sample the same foods the locals eat. If you’re not comfortable with your ability to ask for yourself, it’s a good idea to go out with a friend who speaks Japanese and knows about your allergy. Otherwise, here are some tips you can use to make sure you know what’s in what you’re eating no matter where you go.

Some of the safest bets for good food with clear allergy information are well-established chain stores and family restaurants. Thankfully, there are a lot of these in Japan. Most of these kinds of places will offer full allergy menus with common allergens clearly marked–some even in English.

If you don’t see one on the table, you could always try asking,

  • “すみません、アレルギーメニューがありますか” or “Sumimasen, arerugii menyu ga arimasu ka,” meaning “Excuse me, is there an allergy menu?”

The important thing to note here is that if you want to make it clear you have an allergy, it is important to say it the Japanese way. Saying “allergy” instead of “a-re-ru-gi-i” will likely lead to confusion, as the pronunciation is quite different.

On the Menu

Shown above is a sample of an allergy menu you might find at a chain restaurant. Below the photo of the meal, you’ll see a large grid of some common and not-so-common allergens followed by either an “X,” meaning that the ingredient is not used, or an “O” if the ingredient is in the meal. In this example, the only item with an “O” is リンゴ (“ringo” – apple), so if you’re allergic to apples, you should probably order something else.

In Closing

Please note that the information above is listed for your reference and is not a comprehensive guide in avoiding food allergens while in Japan. Especially if you have a life-threatening food allergy, remember that there may always be some risk involved when trying a new food in a new place. Even with foods you’ve had before, it’s never a bad idea to review the ingredients list or to ask the waiter or chef about allergens again. As a general rule, if you’re not sure, it’s probably best to just pass. However, the hope is that if you know where to look and what to look for, you can feel a little safer about trying new foods or going grocery shopping in Japan.

(top) Photo by David Castor (dcastor) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
(middle) By Author – Sebastian Eifrid
(bottom) Photo by Jun OHWADA (えるしっているか) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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