Wagashi are not some sort of magic Japanese diet food
Someone alerted me to this entry on the Health.com blog which quotes me. [2011 update: The post is now gone from the Health.com site, but you can still see it in the Internet Archive.] (Health.com is a Time Inc. property.) I just wanted to set some things straight, because a couple of the statements there are just not right.
The Time Inc. reporter contacted me with some questions, based on her premise that wagashi or Japanese sweets were healthier for you because they were low fat (or at least no added fat; there is some fat content in the beans used). She wanted to know if this was a reason why Japanese people were generally thin.
What I basically said to the reporter was this: no, I don’t think the lack of butter and cream in wagashi have anything to do with the general thinness of Japanese people. As I am quoted as saying, things like smaller portions, more movement and societal pressure are the main causes. I also said that a traditional Japanese meal does not include a dessert course.
So I was not misquoted as such. But the rest of the article goes on to say some rather misleading things, which I am rather surprised by since I gave the writer plenty of information which would have, I thought, logically lead her away from her preconception that wagashi are some magical diet snack.
First and most inaccurate: “The Japanese are not fond of cream, chocolate, butter, or the fattening ingredients that comprise the typical Western dessert.” - As anyone who has spent any time in Japan knows, this is absolutely not true. Japanese people love cakes and gateaus and puddings chocolates and choux buns. Beard Papa, anyone? Pocky? Purin? Cute Sanrio characters named after sweet sticky buns? I would venture to say that Tokyo may have more French-style patisseries per capita than almost any other city except for Paris and Vienna. Those skinny Japanese women love love love Western style pastries. Those pastries may not necessarily be eaten as part of a main meal as dessert, but are eaten between meals for sure.
The article also goes onto recommend giving wagashi a try. Of course, why not? You may like them, you may not. (I’ve noticed that non-Asian people have very mixed reactions to Asian sweets in general.) However if anyone thinks that wagashi will aid your weight loss efforts, please think again. They are loaded with highly refined white sugar and often use white rice or wheat flour. They are in that sense about on par with those infamous low-fat cookies, Snackwells. Surely we are beyond the point of thinking that eating low fat but high sugar snacks leads to weight loss?
A point in favor of wagashi is that many are partly made with some kind of bean - though almost always hulled beans, so with a lot less fiber than say, your average baked beans. Also, most wagashi are made in tiny little portions which, because they are so sweet, you can only eat slowly, usually with a cup of green tea. Finally, they may make you feel full simply because you’re not used to the texture and taste. But all this is simply speculation. I for one could probably eat more taiyaki or ichigo daifuku than I could a dense chocolate cake in one sitting.
Comparing apples to oranges, or rather wagashi to Western pastries
Here are some calories for some typical Japanese sweets. The source is the official food nutrient database (五訂食品標準成分表) which is published by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the standard reference for all dieticians and health professionals in Japan. Numbers are rounded off for simplicity.
- 1 daifuku (mochi (beaten white rice) dumpling filled with sweet azuki beans): 160 calories
- 1 piece of yohkan (a block of azuki bean paste): about 100 calories for a piece approx. 1 cm (less than half an inch) thick
- 1 dorayaki (two little pancakes with a mound of sweet azuki beans in the middle): 240 calories, most of which comes from refined sugar and white flour
Now here are the calories for single portion sizes of Western style sweets as they are typically sold, and eaten, in Japan:
- 1 individual serving of purin (caramel custard): 110 calories
- 1 small choux pastry filled with custard: 150 calories
- 1 piece strawberry ‘shortcake’ (actually a spongecake filled and frosted with whipped cream, with strawberries in the middle and on top): 350 calories
Not such a huge difference is there? Yes, those typical Japanese cake and pudding portions are quite small. The piece of strawberry shortcake for example is just about the size of the palm of my hand. A choux bun is about 3 inches in diameter.
So we come to same old boring conclusion
Anyway, why are Japanese women generally thin? I’ve addressed this subject in depth a little while ago, but to put it in a nutshell:
- They eat less. Portions are much smaller.
- They move more.
- There’s a lot of societal pressure to remain skinny
Not very novel or cute answers I’m afraid. There is no magic pill, or little sweet.
(Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nutritionist or health professional. But I would challenge anyone to get a Japanese health professional to come up with the conclusion that eating wagashi in lieu of Western style sweets can help people lose weight.)