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Noodles made from trees - Japan's low-cal way to beat the Chinese

[TOKYO] Faced with tightening competition for the textiles it's been making for almost 100 years, Omikenshi Co is trying to get into the health-food business, using its cloth-making technology to turn trees into noodles.

The Osaka-based company's best-selling product is rayon, a fibre made from tree pulp. Using a similar process, Omikenshi is turning the indigestible cellulose into a pulp that's mixed with konjac, a yam-like plant grown in Japan. The resulting fiber- rich flour, which the company calls "cell-eat," contains no gluten, fat and almost no carbohydrate. It has just 60 calories a kilogram (27 calories a pound), compared with 3,680 for wheat.

Omikenshi is betting on a health-food market worth 1.2 trillion yen (S$13.8 billion) in 2013, more than double the level two decades earlier according to Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency.

"We're entering the food business," said Takashi Asami, manager at Omikenshi's strategic material development department. "Demand for diet food is strong and looks promising," while the Japanese textile market is saturated and threatened by rising imports, he said in an interview at Omikenshi's rayon-manufacturing plant in Kakogawa city.

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The nation's rayon production has shrunk about 90 per cent from a peak in 1967, according to the Japan Chemical Fibers Association.

There are already noodles made just from konjac, also known as Devil's Tongue or Voodoo Lily because of the plant's striking flower. But it has been difficult to sell because of its bitter taste, according to Keiichi Ohi, the assistant director for farm export-promotion at the prefectural government office of Gunma, Japan's largest producer of konjac. That's where the wood pulp comes in, improving the flavor and texture, according to Asami.

It's one more way that Japan's highly protected agriculture industry is adapting to the winds of change as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to wean farmers off subsidies that cost the government US$8 billion this fiscal year. Mr Abe eased food-labeling regulations in April, allowing manufacturers to promote health benefits of some products without going through the stringent approvals process of Japan's health authority.

By the end of October, companies had taken advantage of the new rules to register 120 so-called functional foods with Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency, including 43 from producers that previously didn't make food. Nippon Paper Industries Co, Japan's second-largest paper maker, is marketing seedlings of a new tea variety it says helps control cholesterol and alleviate eye strain.

Omikenshi's cell-eat may help farmers of konjac, Japan's most-protected agricultural product. The government imposes tariffs of 2,796 yen a kilogram, or 990 per cent, on imports of the plant to protect local growers, most of whom live in Gunma prefecture, about 100 kilometres north of Tokyo. Japan agreed to reduce the duty by 15 percent under the Trans- Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The trade pact has spurred farmers to try to find markets abroad. Gunma's agriculture exports rose to 600 million yen last fiscal year, triple the initial target, mostly because of demand for the prefecture's high-fat wagyu beef for global gourmets and its no-fat konjac for European health-food eaters, said Ohi in a Nov 4 phone interview.

Omikenshi, the second-largest maker of rayon fiber in Japan, will spend about 1 billion yen on a cell-eat production facility in its textile plant in Kakogawa city in the western Japanese prefecture of Hyogo. Output will start next year at 30 tonnes a month, and production can be tripled depending on demand, Mr Asami said. The cloth-maker is in talks with food companies to develop and market products using cell-eat, he said.

"It can be used as a substitute for wheat in products ranging from ramen, pasta, and Chinese dumplings," Mr Asami said. "We are discussing exporting it to China in the future as obesity is becoming a major problem for children there."



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