FEATURE: “Anko” red bean paste the new chic way to stay in shape


Low in fat and high in fiber, “anko” confectionery is becoming a go-to for fitness freaks and bodybuilders who want to get the most out of traditional “wagashi” sweets.

The red bean paste is seen by many as a “stylish” diet candy, as it goes well with just about anything, including dairy products, bread and fruit, and various other sweets.

Yuri Akiyama, a 32-year-old illustrator in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, near Tokyo, became addicted to anko in high school when she became more aware of her diet.

“An bassadors” participate in an anko tasting in Tokyo in May 2019. (Photo courtesy of Japan Anko Association) (TBEN)

After learning the low fat content of anko compared to western confectionery, she started eating red bean paste snacks such as ‘taiyaki’, an anko-filled Japanese fish-shaped cake, ‘dorayaki’, pancake-like patties wrapped around anko, and ‘monaka’ . ,” anko sandwiched between two thin wafers made of mochi.

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While wagashi confectionery “is simple, it also has its own qualities,” she said.

Akiyama started making her own sugar-free, fermented anko about a year ago. She eats it as is, on top of rice or sprinkled with “kinako” toasted soy flour. “I don’t have to worry about calories,” she brags.

Fitness trainers and bodybuilders may be expected to steer clear of anything sweet, but they also find the treats made from “azuki” beans hard to miss for its health benefits.

Hiroyuki Nagai, a competitive bodybuilder, replenishes his nutrients with “daifuku” mochi with anko red bean paste after a workout on August 29, 2022 in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, eastern Japan. (Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Nagai) (TBEN)

Hiroyuki Nagai, 41, a competitive bodybuilder in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, swears by them.

“Red bean paste, which is rich in carbohydrates and dietary fiber, is indispensable for adjusting the gut environment, which tends to be disrupted when dieting,” Nagai said.

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Bodybuilders in the United States eat anko regularly these days, he said. To take advantage of the growing demand among regular exercisers, anko makers have released drinkable or stick-like products that are easy to consume while exercising.

Young owners who have taken over longstanding wagashi stores have developed various forms of “evolved” anko products, emphasized Anko Nishii, 40, head of the Japan Anko Association. Young people have started posting their photos on Instagram and Twitter, sparking a sort of anko boom, said Nishii, who declined to reveal his real name.

Undated photo provided shows Yuri Akiyama’s homemade fermented anko. (TBEN)

Sales of wagashi products through a website launched by Nishii in 2017 approximately tripled in 2019 from the previous year. By May, the association had more than 8,000 members called “an-bassadors” who organize anko tastings and share their favorite wagashi.

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To join the group, an applicant must pass an exam on the ins and outs of anko, including its history and nutritional benefits.

Anko was once made to be “offered to the gods,” while deformed ones were given out to the public, explained Motomi Shibasaki, 45, a lecturer at Jumonji University and a registered dietitian.

Now, even coarse anko, made from the whole bean, skin and all, symbolizes holding on to the spirit of “mottainai,” a Japanese term that conveys a sense of regret over wasting, Shibasaki said.

“I hope people will pay attention to anko’s attributes other than delight and style,” she said.

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