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Meiji Hokkaido Azuki (Red Bean & Condensed Milk) – product review

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Introduction

Last time I stopped by the neighborhood Asian grocery store I picked up Wakakusa Daifuku (a japanese sweet which was the subject of my last report), and my wife picked the product which I’ll highlight this time – Meiji’s Hokkaido Azuki ice cream bar. Meiji is a major producer of various food items – sweets, milk, juices, and soups to name a few. For those history buffs, ‘Meiji’ also represents an era in Japan from September 1868 through July 1912, where Japan’s society evolved from feudalism to a more modern structure.

Unlike the daifuku which was made in Japan, this product actually comes from a factory in Taiwan (from what looks like a Taiwanese subsidiary of Meiji called ‘Poki’), which is probably the reason for the cheaper price and some lower caliber ingredients (colorings, etc.)

Hokkaido is Japan’s second largest island, situated in the north, and it’s actually depicted on the package. I discovered that Azuki beans are in fact produced there, but I haven’t been able to verify if those used in this product are officially Hokkaido Azuki beans.

Flavor

This ice cream bar has a azuki bean core surrounded by a milk coating, painted on very thin except near the tip where there is nearly an inch of solid coating. My sweet-tooth instincts compelled me to bite here first, and I was rewarded handsomely with a lusciously thick, creamy flavor,  sweet but not overly so. The tip’s shape was deformed, likely a result of partial melting and re-freezing, but I got over this quirk immediately. I’ve attached a picture at the bottom of this article.

In the core, beans have been used in both whole bean and paste form. Unlike some azuki-based deserts which are overloaded by sugar, this one has a very mild sweetness which doesn’t overpower the strong, earthy azuki bean flavor. The rough texture here strikes an excellent balance with the outer coating’s creaminess. I was impressed by the surprising number of beans packed in, similar to the picture on the box.

Personally I’m not very found of ice cream bars where a wooden stick, serving as a handle, is submerged partway through. The first few bites are great, but as I get closer to the stick I have to bite carefully which takes away from the enjoyment. Neither the texture nor the flavor of wood fits with ice cream so accidental bites are unpleasant indeed.

Nutrition & Ingredients

Each box contains four bars, and each bar is 100g (1 serving). There isn’t a great deal of nutrition in this bar, with protein and fiber only 2 grams and 1 grams, respectively. There is also no trace of common vitamins such as A and C.

What really shines about this product is two of the most important nutrition metrics (to me, at least): calories and sugar content. In a single serving there is an below average amount of calories per serving size – only 173. But what’s even more amazing is the sugar content – only 5 grams! That’s the lowest I have seen in a product of this type and as a seeker of low-sugar sweets it really impresses me. I’m confounded on how they managed to create such a sweet flavor from only 5 grams of sugar, especially in the sugary milk coating.

One of the secrets of creating a low calorie, low sugar desert is to use water as a base, and that is done here with water as the most prevalent ingredient. Many of the top few ingredients are healthy and natural – milk powder, red beans, and coconut oil. Maltose, a sugar produced from grain and known by the name ‘malt sugar’, is used in higher proportion than normal sugar.

As you get to the less prevalent ingredients you start to run into “Natural Flavors” as well three artificial food colorings. These are disliked by the many of the health conscious, and for good reason. As an example, the blue coloring used is made from petroleum and is one of the dyes suspected of causing cancer (see link in references below for more info). Though legal in most countries, in the past it had been banned in over 10 countries.  As a health skeptic, I’m more likely to believe that companies lobbied to get this legalized as opposed to researchers suddenly “discovering” they were not bad for health.

Besides the health angle, I think the colors themselves are a bit strange (as well as quite different from those used on the package), and would like to see how things look without any colorings. I’m sure it would still be appetizing and much better for the body.

The full ingredient list is: Water, Skimmed Milk Powder, Red Bean, Butter, Coconut Oil, Maltose, Sugar, Emulsifier, Salt, Nature [sic] flavor, Caramel, FD&C Yellow #5, FD&C Red #20, FD&C Blue #1

[Update: Because many Japanese characters are derived from Chinese, I was able to partially read some of the original ingredients and nutrition information. First thing I noticed is that the order of ingredients is different. In the English translation some of the sugar-related ones are shown to be less prevalent. Also, the sugar content didn’t seem to be listed in the original ingredients. Without further research I can’t say definitely, but there is a chance the English translation is incorrect.]

Price and Availability

I purchased this at a local asian grocery store for around $3. I plan to verify the exact price next time I stop by there and update this blog.

Ratings

Nutrition & Ingredients: 6.5

Flavor: 8.5

Price:7.0

Overall: 7.33

Summary

A superb mix of azuki beans and sweet milk, made with mostly natural ingredients and very low sugar. The main drawback is the presence of unknown natural flavors and the dreaded artificial food colorings.

References

http://www.meiji.co.jp/

http://www.poki-meiji.com.tw/product-detail.aspx?id=469

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_period

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brilliant_Blue_FCF

http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/food-dyes-are-they-safe

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Wakakusa Daifuku (若草大福) – Japanese sweet candy (product review)

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Introduction

As a I did research for each of my sweets reports, I discovered that there are a huge amount of other blogs reviewing many of the same products. That it itself isn’t a major surprise, but it got me thinking that if I really want to distinguish myself from other blogs, I need to work hard on not only top-quality, detailed reviews, but also on targeting new products or those that are not as popular yet in the mainstream.

My product selection this time, a Japanese confection from Adachi Sangyo, is an attempt to introduce a niche product to a wider audience. I’m hoping that those unfamiliar with ‘daifuku’ will be happy to learn about one more way to indulge in your craving for sweets.

Food products from other countries are always interesting. Not only do you get a unique flavor not found in everyday American foods, but you also get a unique set of ingredients that has potentially to be different, if not healthier, than typical ingredients used in domestic foods.

Nutrients / Ingredients

So what is a ‘daifuku’ anyway? It’s a traditional Japanese sweet existing for over two centuries which consists of a sweetened red bean paste (anko) wrapped by a layer of glutinous rice cake (mochi). They are in flattened sphere form, and these daifuku are small enough to fit in the circle made by my thumb and forefinger.

One bag contains 7 daifuku and each one is 16 grams (1 serving). Each serving is only 50 calories, but that hides the fact that over 80% of this product (13 grams) is sugar. The first two ingredients are sugar and starch syrup, the latter being made in a process similar to corn syrup where starch is converted to syrup. If that didn’t make you run screaming then the rest of the story isn’t quite as bad.

This product is pretty nutritionally barren, in both a positive and negative sense: no sodium, no fat, no protein, and no fiber.

The great thing is that the 3rd, 4th, and 5th ingredients are all made natural plants or grains – rice, red beans, and mugwort. The latter is a flowering herb whose extracts have been shown to inhibit a certain type of cancer cells in vitro. The name ‘Wakakusa’ means something like ‘young plant’ and refers to this Japanese mugwort (yomogi).

The package I bought contained an English translation of the ingredients and nutritional information along with the original text in Japanese. I was surprised to find that the original contained two ingredients not found in the English translation: coloring (Safflower and common gardenia ) and “flavoring”. I’m glad they decided to use natural coloring agents, but very nonplussed about the mysterious “flavoring”. Translation of this word (香料 “kouryou”)says it can refer to both natural and artificial flavoring.

Oddly, I couldn’t find the calorie count listed in the original Japanese text. Because of the omission with some ingredients in the translation I’m suspicious about this number.

Here is the full list of ingredients:

Sugar, starch syrup, rice cake powder, red bean paste, (japanese) mugwort, starch, trehalose, skim milk powder, antioxidant (vitamin e), coloring (from flowers), flavoring.

One interesting ingredient used here is ‘trehalose’, a sweetener that is roughly 45 percent as sweet as sucrose and a low insulin response. It has the nickname ‘mushroom sugar’ because it can be found in some mushrooms. I believe it is used here primary as a preservative since it is present in only a small amount.

Vitamin E is also used as a preservative to prevent oxidation and keep the food fresher. But for a product that is sold in a refrigerated section this seems unnecessary. Vitamin or not, I’d prefer less preservatives in my food.

Overall, the use of natural ingredients such a rice, beans, and mugwort are a great idea, but the extreme amount of sugar renders them practically useless from a nutritional point of view.

Flavor

Besides the light green color mixed with darker green colored spots, you’ll notice a fine powder covering the outside of each daifuku. This is most likely rice cake powder (or another type of flour) and is used to keep the confection from sticking to the little plastic wrapper containing it.

As you pick up one of the little daifuku, you’ll notice it has a gummy texture, and when you bite into it you are taken captive by the sticky, chewy sensation. That is the glutinous rice. Besides a moderate sweetness I don’t detect any other strong flavor in it.

When you reach its core there is a burst of extreme sweetness, as well as coldness, as your tongue savors the dark red azuki paste with its smooth texture. The contrast between the filling and the outer core is quite well balanced and keeps your senses busy.

I’m very familiar with azuki beans to the extent that I have made my own paste, so I quickly picked up on the subtle, but distinctive bean flavor of the filling. However, those less accustomed to this might just only perceive it as an ‘earthy’ taste. It doesn’t really taste like other beans (black, pinto, etc.), though the mashed texture is not too different.

Ironically, the mugwort (which the product was named after) didn’t have a strong taste.  I had the sensation of eating flowers/plants but with my a priori knowledge of the ingredients its hard to give an unbiased description of the flavor. For my future reports I’m considering eating the product before reading though the ingredients so I can have a more neutral impression.

As a side note, the packaging is very artistic and feels like more effort was put into designing it that many American sweets.

Price and Availability

I found these at a asian grocery store in south florida, and odds are you can find it at a similar place in your neighborhood.

Since these are somewhat of a specialty imported item, they are not cheap. For a bag of 7 the price is around $3-$4. I apologize for not keeping track of the exact price, I’ll check it next time I return to the store and update this entry.

You could probably buy it online but as an imported good the shipping would probably make it prohibitively expensive.

Ratings

Flavor: 7.0

Nutrients/Ingredients: 5.0

Price: 6.0

Overall: 6.0

Summary

Great entry point into the world of exotic Japanese sweets, although the natural ingredients employed are offset by a load of sugar.

References

http://www.adachisangyo.co.jp/syohin/daifuku/index10.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemisia_princeps

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daifuku

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%99%E3%83%8B%E3%83%90%E3%83%8A

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%AF%E3%83%81%E3%83%8A%E3%82%B7

http://www.caloriecontrol.org/sweeteners-and-lite/sugar-substitutes/other-sweeteners/trehalose

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