Japan has the world's highest number of people age 65 and older. And a growing number of elderly people there are dying in accidental choking deaths. For the past 10 years, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the vast majority of those deaths have been senior citizens.
Mochi — a sticky rice cake eaten at the new year — and apples present the worst choking hazards to Japan's seniors.
To help prevent these unnecessary tragedies, Japan's food industry has created "Engay" foods, which are specialized for elderly people.
These pureed, reshaped foods include anything you can imagine. After pureeing an original food product — say, grilled salmon — the puree is combined with a gelling agent. Then it's molded into the original appearance of the food — in the case of salmon, with fake grill marks and everything.
So far, these products are the domain of hospitals and nursing homes and cost slightly more than regular food. But with a fast-aging population, it's considered the food of Japan's future.
See how these delicacies are made (and whether they're any good) in this episode of Elise Tries.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's a crazy statistic. As Japanese society ages, more people are dying from choking deaths than traffic accidents. The problem has led to a whole new line of food designed to prevent choking. As part of her series Elise Tries, NPR's Elise Hu took a taste test.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: We are going to try out specialized food for senior citizens or, as the slogan reads, bringing continued pleasure of eating until the last breath.
This new line of food is called Engay, which means swallow in Japanese. Nearly 10,000 Japanese die from choking each year, most of them elderly. Hearing and speech professor Isamu Shibamoto has been studying the trends.
ISAMU SHIBAMOTO: (Through interpreter) We are very much surprised at the speed that it has reached this level.
HU: Purees that look like baby food aren't appetizing. So here's where the innovation comes in. An original dish, say grilled salmon, is pureed, then a jelling agent is added to the mix. Once it becomes harder and easier to mold, that gelatinous salmon puree is molded like Play-Doh until it looks like the original food. I had to give this a try.
Here we go. Note - I am not chewing. I'm just breaking this down with my tongue. It tastes like - it tastes like salmon. It tastes like salmon. To prevent choking on liquids, the powdered jelling agent thickens beverages of any kind within a few seconds. In this demo, we tried a thickened juice.
This isn't as syrupy as I expected it would be. It's as if orange juice had a bunch of cornstarch in it.
While these food products aren't as delicious as their original versions, they have an added benefit for a rapidly aging Japan. They're specially designed not to accidentally kill you. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "YOU GO")
MARTIN: To see this easy-to-swallow food for yourself - and I know you want to - check out the video at npr.org/elisetries.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "YOU GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.