8 Tips for Healthier Japanese Cuisine

For over a year now I've been touting the health benefits of Japanese food. And in general it is one of the most healthy cuisines out there. However, here are eight ways you can up the healthy ante a bit. Think of it as the pro level of healthful cooking.

1 Avoid Fish That Are High In Mercury

Obviously fish is a very important component of Japanese cooking. It's also very good for you, in general. It’s low in fat and high in protein, provides minerals and vitamins that humans have trouble producing, and can lower the risk of heart disease.  White fish in particular is a wonderful low fat option, but the real superstars of the sea are fatty fish, like salmon. They are absolutely bursting with omega-3 fatty acids, a wonderful substance with all kinds of health benefits. 

However, there is one blot on fishes great health record, and that is that some fish can be high in mercury, a pretty undesirable addition to any dinner table. The trouble is that mercury gets into the water via pollution and once it is there, it gets into the bodies of all the ocean's inhabitance. Small stuff eats mercury, bigger stuff eats the small stuff and so on (you don't need me to explain the food chain to you). Once big fish, like tuna, are getting their meals, the concentration of mercury is getting pretty bad. 

Luckily for me, and you, Arizona State University conducted a study and ranked fish by mercury contamination and sustainability. The fish were grouped into green for low mercury and high sustainability, grey for fish that were one or the other but not both, and red for those that had high mercury levels and low sustainability. I provide the green and red here so you will know what is safe and what is most certainly not. 

Green choices: Low mercury, high sustainability
Pacific herring* (B.C.)
Red king crab (Bristol Bay)
Pacific cod (Alaska/B.C.)
Tanner crab (US Bering Sea)
Atlantic pollock (Northeast Arctic/New England)
Alaskan pollock (Eastern Bering Sea)
Atlantic mackerel* (Northeast Atlantic)
American plaice (New England)
Canary rockfish (US Pacific coast)
Black rockfish (US Pacific coast)
Yellowfin sole (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
European anchovy* (South Africa)
Rock sole (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
Pacific Ocean Perch (Alaska/US Pacific Coast)
Ocean perch (Newfoundland)
Alaska plaice (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
Flathead sole (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
Skipjack tuna* (Central Western Pacific)
Arrowtooth flounder (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
English sole (US Pacific coast)
*Indicate good sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Red choices: High mercury, low sustainability
Bluefin tuna (Eastern Atlantic)
Yellowtail flounder (Georges Bank)
Swordfish (Mediterranean)
Spanish mackerel (US South Atlantic)
Gag grouper (US Gulf of Mexico)

Note that skipjack tuna, bonito, is on the green list, which is wonderful news. By the way, bonito has been shown to have all sorts of benefits such as improving blood circulation, lowering blood pressure, heightening concentration, reducing depression and anxiety, improving decision making ability, and reducing oxidative DNA damage. 

One fish that I was surprised to see was missing from this list was salmon. However, I found several other lists that did include wild caught Alaskan salmon, confirming my suspicions that it is low in mercury and sustainable. I was happy to read this, since salmon happens to be my particular favorite. Especially wild Alaskan salmon, which is so much more tasty than atlantic salmon, of course I may be bias.

2 Buy Organic Whenever Possible

Let's not even get into the ridiculousness of dousing something you're going to be eating in poisons. Suffice to say that many studies suggest that the toxins that build up in your body from all the chemicals and pesticides that you eat can cause a lot of harm. But there is another reason why organic is better, and that is that the fruits and vegetables that are grown without pesticides may actually be more nutritious. Studies show that it is possible the absence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers makes it easier for the plants to produce the vitamins and antioxidants that we want in our food. Eating organic might just give your food a little boost that makes it that much more healthy. 

But hey, I know how things can sometimes be, organic food is expensive and conventional food can be pretty cheap. I get that, and I sometimes have a hard time buying all the organic food I want. Luckily, some nonorganic foods are safer to eat than others, maybe they're grown with fewer pesticides and chemicals, or the plant has a thicker skin that helps lessen the ill effects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls these the "Clean Fifteen", and they are as follows:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapples 
  4. Cabbage
  5. Frozen sweet peas
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus 
  8. Mangos
  9. Papayas 
  10. Eggplant
  11. Honeydew
  12. Grapefruit
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower 

And, of course, some fruits and vegetables are particularly bed to eat nonorganic, since they use more pesticides or are more likely to absorb it. The EWG calls these the "Dirty Dozen" and this is where you should be paying more for organic. 

  1. Strawberries
  2. Apples
  3. Nectarines 
  4. Peaches
  5. Celery 
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Bell Peppers
  11. Cherry Tomatoes
  12. Cucumbers

They also note that hot peppers and kale are particularly not good. I would like to add that conventional citrus farming does a lot of harm to the water table, so it is better to go organic there too. 

3 stick with White Rice

"What?" you might be thinking, "Everyone knows brown rice is better for you!" Well, that simply isn't the case. You probably know that the difference between brown and white rice is that brown rice still has the outer bran, while white rice has been polished smooth. In most cases unprocessed whole grains are more healthy since they contain more nutrients, but with brown rice they also contain some anti-nutrients. These are the plants natural defense against pests and are probably not very healthy for human consumption. One of these anti-nutrients is phytic acid, which has the unfortunate habit of binding the good nutrients in our guts so that they aren’t even absorbed properly. This means that while brown rice has higher nutrients the phytic acid is preventing us from reaping the benefits. 

This is very interesting, but not a scary as the next fact about brown rice I found. In recent years it has been discovered that rice can have high levels of arsenic in it. Over time regular consumption of arsenic can lead to major health problems like cancer. Arsenic can find its way into many different plants, but rice is particularly at risk since it is grown in water which can absorb arsenic from the atmosphere. This means that the level of arsenic in rice varies depending of where it was grown. At this time rice grown in the southern United States, for example, has higher arsenic levels dew to the residual arsenic from the cotton trade. Californian rice on the other hand has lower levels.
Due to the removal of the bran, white rice, especially that grown in California, has fairly safe levels of arsenic. This can be reduced even more by washing the uncooked rice until it runs clean, which is the traditional method in Japan anyway. I recommend the company Lundberg for safe white rice as their rice consistently tested well below the safe limit of arsenic decided on by the EPA. 

However, most brown rice products, which are labeled as health foods mind, had shockingly high levels of arsenic. In fact in most cases brown rice has 50% more arsenic in it than white rice. So you should definitely eat brown rice rarely, or avoid it all together. 

4 Throw Out your teflon 

Many people cook with teflon pans because they're pretty inexpensive and they're nonstick. Teflon has been around since the 1940s, and is actually a name, trademarked by DuPont, for Polytetrafluoroethylene ( not surprisingly shortened to PTFE). Pots and pans that are nonstick are usually made from aluminum and are coated in PTFE, making them pretty resistant to adhesion. That's all well and good, but teflon is also known to emit toxic fumes when it is overheated. Though these fumes are considered harmless, they have been known to cause "flu like symptoms" or "Polymer fume fever". If that doesn't sound bad enough, these fumes have been known to kill pet birds. The EWG has conducted experiments that show that while teflon producers claim PTFE is safe at low temperatures, it actually takes relatively little time for these fumes to be produced. 

Stainless steel and cast-iron might be a bit more expensive, but I believe that they are the way to go. Plus, if treated right, cast iron is pretty stick resistant. I started my collection of pans with one medium stainless steel pot ($6.00), a medium cast iron skillet ($21.00), a carbon steel wok ($30.00), and a large enamel dutch oven ($60.00). This was what I cooked with for several years before getting some all cads and several various sizes of skillets. I realize that you can get a set of teflon pans for half that, but do you really want to cook with pans that cause "flu like symptoms" if you stand over them? 

Another aspect in which teflon finds its way into Japanese cooking is from rice makers, which are usually equipped with a teflon pot. Recently I was able to track down a rice maker that uses a clay pot. This also gives it a very mild earthy flavor. 

Oh hey, I also found a great replacement set of enamel pots for only $51.05!

5 While your at it, chuck the plastic

While you might not cook with plastic, most kitchens are still full of the stuff, from plastic utensils to food storage containers. Why is that bad? Well, many plastics are made with additives that we simply do not know enough about. These chemicals are known to leach out of those plastics into food or water. According to Dr. Anila Jacob, a scientist formerly working with EWG, "There is very little published research on the potential adverse health effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it's difficult to say they're safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term use..."

The most well known of these chemicals is probably bisphenol-A (BPA), which is present in many plastics used for food storage and water bottles. BPA does a number on our hormones by mimicking estrogen and messes with your thyroid hormone receptors. Not all plastics contain PBA, but of course, there are many other additives like  bisphenol-S (BPS) and bisphenol-F (BPF), which might be just as bad. 

It might not be completely practical to avoid plastics all together, but wherever possible, try to replace them with ceramics, wood, metal, cloth, or glass. I personally only use glass storage containers, cloth produce bags, and carry my drinking water in a mason jar with a drinking lid

One area where this effects Japanese food in particular is in bento boxes. Many of those adorable containers are made from plastic, but you can also find a variety of metal, glass, or even wood, alternatives. 

For more information on avoiding harmful plastics, check out the EWG post about it. To learn more about BPA and the other products it lurks in, go here

6 adopt the multiple plate system and use chopsticks

As I mentioned in the post about dining customs, a Japanese meal is traditionally served with each dish in it's own plate or bowl. Though it is possible to eat Japanese food on a single plate, American style, I encourage you to use the multiple plate system. This might seem strange, but there is a very healthy reason for this. Using multiple small dishes encourages smaller portions. Even getting two helpings of a small rice bowl is usually still less than I would put on my plate. A rice bowl should hold about 1 cup of cooked rice.

As for using chopsticks, it's easy once you get the hang of it, and it also slows you down while you're eating. This can help you eat less because your brain has time to register that you're full. Also, it makes you more mindful of what you're eating and how much. I think that this leads to a more pleasant eating experience and a happier digestion. If you're having trouble mastering chopsticks, this video might help. 

7 keep an eye out for msg

MSG or monosodium glutamate, is a chemical component that is found naturally in many foods, like tomatoes and cheese. It was identified and named in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, as part of his study of umami (one of the five tastes). Monosodium glutamate is only one of the glutamate salts that produces umami, but it is the easiest to replicate. In 1909, Ikeda patented a process for producing MSG for the food industry. It was originally marketed as Aji-no-moto or "essence of taste", and was used to enhance the natural savory flavor of food. Since then the use has exploded, and today it is used in a lot of processed foods.

There is a lot of debate about whether MSG is dangerous or not. Personally, I grew up being told that it was bad, and so it's not a stretch for me to accept this. Others see that as nothing but hippy propaganda. Well, there frankly hasn't been many studies on the subject, but some recent work has been done with disturbing implications. Just to be clear, no one is saying natural monosodium glutamate is bad for you, just the type that is processed. 

A lot of people have reported that they feel poorly after eating food with MSG in it. Headaches and skin rashes are the most common complaint, but there is also stomach upset, limb weakness, and a sensation of burning in the mouth, head and neck areas. Though you might be able to pass that off as here-say, some independent double-blind testing has corroborated this. It isn't every person who reacts this way, but since MSG has an accumulative effect, the more you eat it, the more likely it is that you will have these reactions. 

But a headache isn't the worst thing MSG can do to you. Studies have shown that MSG can destroy retinal cells, cause brain damage, and cause nervous disorders. Hormones are also badly effected by MSG. Rodents injected with it become inactive and obese, and heres the thing, humans are 5 times more sensitive to MSG than rats. For more information about the dangers of MSG (and the sources for these studies) you can go here

If you're doing Japanese food right, you should be cooking mainly with fresh and natural ingredients. However, when you're using different types of sauces or seasonings, you will want to check the labels thoroughly. MSG can be hidden in many clever ways, since it may be an ingredient of one of the ingredients. That link up above will also give you a list of the ingredients to avoid that contain MSG. Be especially careful with the brand of soy sauce that you're using. Always avoid hondashi (dashi granules), as they are mostly made up of MSG. 

8 Leave out the sugar

We've all heard that sugar is the devil, and of course, it is. It's also America's favorite food. The daily recommended amount of sugar is 35g for men and 25g for women, but on average Americans eat over 150g a day. The best thing to do is to stop eating it, but for most people, kicking the sugar habit can feel almost as hard as kicking a drug. In fact a recent study undergone by Princeton University has found that sugar can act like a drug for some people, releasing dopamine in the brain and even causing addiction and withdrawals. Luckily it doesn’t seem that everyone is wired to be receptive to this addiction, but unfortunately the human brain is already wired to love sugar. This is because our bodies run on sugar, it’s like the gas that powers the whole machine. 

This was fine when we were hunter gatherers and the only sugar we got was from fruits and vegetables, but in the modern age when sugar has been added to every food, far more than is good for us, our love of sweet is becoming a danger. Too much sugar has been linked to tooth decay, liver disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. And of course, it also makes us fat, contributing to the obesity epidemic

Okay, so, how does this apply to Japanese food, other than the obvious need to not drink soda and eat dessert. Well, a lot of Japanese recipes call for a little added sugar. I had been getting around this by using maple syrup, which is made from fructose, so is a little better than sucrose (table sugar). However, recently I decided that sugar was my nemeses and that I needed to cut ties with it entirely. Luckily, the Japanese food I have cooked since then has been just as good as it was before. I therefore conclude that the added sugar is unnecessary and can be left out without damaging the flavor.

There is one sweet ingredient that is not leave-out-able though. That is mirin, the sweet rice wine. The sweetness comes not from refined sugar, but from the fermentation process changing the starch into a natural sugar. At least, this is the case if you use traditionally brewed mirin. Check the label, because a lot of brands add sugar or corn syrup (gasp!). I've only been able to find one brand that didn't do this dastardly switch, and that is Eden. It's a bit more expensive, but if you're looking to give your food a touch more health, it's worth it. To make up for leaving out the sugar, I add a teeny more mirin.


So there you have it. With just a little extra effort and perhaps a bit more money, your Japanese food can be the healthiest! 

By the way, this is all information that is in my up coming ebook, The Seven Pillars of Washoku. It will probably be out by the spring. If you want a free copy of that book, when it's finished, make sure you're signed up for the newsletter. 

If you enjoyed this post you might like this one, about the building blocks of Japanese flavor.