Cool stuff from Japan: Plastic food models used for nutrition education
You’re probably already familiar with the sometimes disturbingly lifelike, plastic or silicone models of food that are used as window displays in many Japanese restaurants, both in Japan and around the world. They are great visual aids for ordering unfamiliar food. Here’s a typical display of such models at a ramen shop:
And here is…well, do you see something different? Instead of prices, the tags show nutritional information.
That’s because this display is not in front of a restaurant. It’s in the Nutrition Counseling Room at the hospital my mother is in at the moment. The very nice and sweet dietician told us that the models are made by a famous maker of such food models, under the strict supervision of the hospital to ensure accuracy, and are as realistic in terms of portion size and so on as possible.
Here’s another view of the nutrition counseling room. In the foreground you see a set of plastic drawers that are labeled by the type of food model they hold. They have single-serving versions of various food. In the background, where the lady in the white lab coat is (that’s the dietician who counseled my mother) is a glass display case that holds various commonly eaten dishes.
I guess listening to someone explaining the nutritional value of a food is best if you’re looking at the actual food, but these realistic models are the next best thing — plus, they can be stored and reused and taken out again and again without worrying about spoilage.
Here’s the dietician holding up a bowl of miso soup. The lighting in these photos is not the best (it was after all, hospital lighting) but in person, except for the fact that the surface wasn’t moving, it looked just like a bowl of miso soup!
Here’s one of the meal displays in the glass case, in this case a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce. The numbers indicate how many units of a certain type of nutrition it has on a typical food chart used mainly for diabetics, since it seems they are the ones that need the most guidance (1 unit is 80 calories). The bottom row shows the total calories (605) and sodium (2.5g). And that’s for a smallish Japanese-restaurant portion.
The bottom shelf of the display case had various snack foods and fast foods, which had the actual nutritional breakdown rather than units on their labels. For instance, here in the middle is a “large” sized portion of fast food french fries (called fried potatoes in Japan). It has 4.1g of protein, 34g of carbohydrates, 20.5g of fat, 2g salt, and…338 calories! The apple pie on the right is worse - 380 calories, most of it carbs and fat. Pies will have to be occasional treats from now on for me… ;_;
Here is an 80 calorie pat of butter, on a standard tablespoon-sized (15ml) measuring spoon. Seeing it like this, and holding it in your hand, really has impact. Incidentally, food units in Japan are based on 80 calories, because that happens to be the approximate calorie count of a lot of foods - 1/2 a standard bowl of cooked white rice, 1 egg, 1/2 slice of bread, etc.
When it comes to sweet things, you really see how sparingly you should be eating them if you’re watching your weight. This tiny sliver (about 2 inches / 5cm long and maybe 1/2 inch / less than 1cm thick at the widest point) of strawberries and cream filled spongecake, called ‘strawberry shortcake’ erroneously in Japan (it’s the most popular kind of cake here by the way) is 80 calories. So a standard slice of cake is more than 400 calories. With buttercream icing, it would be way higher. I knew this kind of thing before but as I’ve said, seeing a three-dimensional representation leaves a much bigger impression than reading it in some calorie chart, or even seeing pictures.
Beware how you cook your fish!
My favorite set of food models was one that showed how various cooking methods affect the calorie count. Here’s a model of a piece of uncooked fish (mackerel or something) - I think it was 70 grams, or about 2 ounces. It’s 80 calories.
Dry grilled or panfried with just salt, it’s the same amount of calories with a bit of added salt of course. (And for oily fish, plain grilling is one of the best cooking methods anyway.) So here’s the grilled fish model. Looked actually appetizing!
But once you cook the fish with fat and other things, the calorie count shoots up. This tray shows three different ways of cooking the fish, together with the amount of oil or butter, flour, egg, breadcrumbs etc. that are added to a typical piece of fish. From right to left, you have a meuniere (coated in flour and panfried with a bit of butter and oil) at 134 calories; karaage (coated in flour and deep fried in oil) at 145 calories; and finally _furai) (coated in flour and egg, dipped in bread crumbs, and deep fried) at a whopping 181 calories! For one tiny bit of fish!
I think using these food models is a fantastic way of driving home the point about portion sizes and cooking methods. Wouldn’t it be great if they were used all around the world, especially in schools to teach kids? One drawback is that these very realistic and accurate models are expensive, since the originals from which the casts are made are handcrafted. Still, I do wish that use of these models could someday become universal in nutrition education everywhere.
I’ve posted some more photos of the nutritional food models in this flickr set.
(And by the way, great news: Not only is my mother getting discharged from the hospital later today, she was told by the dietician that she can basically eat anything she wants, as long as it’s healthy and balanced. After years of having to watch what she ate all the time, she’s absolutely ecstatic.)