A special Japanese dish called natto is prepared from fermented soybeans. If you visit Japan, you will likely come across natto at some point. It is essential to be ready in advance to avoid being overwhelmed by its unique traits. Natto is renowned for having a sticky texture and a nasty smell, but if you can get beyond those issues, you may be able to appreciate its earthy flavor and benefit from its high nutritional value. Like Marmite in the UK (or Vegemite in Australia), natto is one of those foods that people either love or loathe.
Its foul odor and slimy texture make some people gag, while others (like myself) can’t get enough of it. Strangely enough, natto’s popularity in Japan is mostly divided along regional lines. People in the north and east of Japan typically like it, while those in the west and south typically don’t. On the southern island of Kyushu, Kumamoto is an exception to this rule where, for some unexplained reason, natto is highly well-liked.
What is Natto? A brief history
There are various theories as to how and where Natto first saw light. In fact, the conventional method for making natto involves packing boiling soybeans in straw and allowing the bacteria to do their magic. One of the greatest historical puzzles is how humans came to learn about this procedure. The second major historical puzzle is why they chose to eat it despite seeing the foul, gooey mess that method had produced. However, there is a pretty dramatic narrative that circulates throughout the northern Tohoku region about the beginnings of natto.
In order to tame certain unruly local warlords, the famed samurai commander Minamoto no Yoshiie was in charge of a military operation in Tohoku in the year 1083. When their camp was suddenly attacked, Minamoto’s troops were boiling some beans to feed their horses. They hurriedly put the beans in straw bags, stowed them under the horses’ saddles, and then rode into combat so as not to squander them. After a few days, Minamoto’s men were able to open the beans because they had found a secure location.
However, by this point, the beans had been thoroughly ruined by the germs in the straw, assisted by the heat and sweat from the horses’ flanks. You may assume that no one in their right mind would eat the results, but Minamoto’s troops, brave warriors that they were, tried the beans nonetheless since they were hungry and low on supplies after a fierce battle. They were surprised to find that they tasted rather delicious, and natto was born! It has been noted that the locations where natto is prevalent are also typical horse breeding regions, whether or not this narrative is accurate. Therefore, it is highly conceivable that the healthy natto was initially widely disseminated throughout the country by warriors riding horses.
Although traditional wara-natto (natto wrapped in straw) can still be found, store-bought natto nowadays often comes in a compact styrofoam container. These packages frequently include small, useful sachets of mustard and soy sauce. Initially, stir the natto with your chopsticks until it becomes quite sticky. The flavor will emerge as a result. Soy sauce and mustard can then be combined. You can eat it as you like. Although it can be eaten on its own, most people pair it with rice.
It Is Rich in Several Nutrients
Natto is super nutritious. It contains good levels of many nutrients that are important for optimal health. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion provides the following:
Fat: 11 grams
Carbs: 14 grams
Fiber: 5 grams
Protein: 18 grams
Manganese: 76% of the RDI
Iron: 48% of the RDI
Copper: 33% of the RDI
Vitamin K1: 29% of the RDI
Magnesium: 29% of the RDI
Calcium: 22% of the RDI
Vitamin C: 22% of the RDI
Potassium: 21% of the RDI
Zinc: 20% of the RDI
Selenium: 13% of the RDI
In lower doses, natto also has pantothenic acid, folate, vitamin B6, antioxidants, and other healthy plant chemicals. Because the fermentation of the soybeans used to make natto fosters the development of probiotics, it is particularly nutrient-dense.
Probiotics are helpful bacteria that have several health advantages. Making food more digestible has the advantage of making it simpler for your body to absorb the nutrients from it. This is one of the arguments in favor of natto’s nutritional superiority over cooked soybeans.
Additionally, compared to non-fermented soybeans, natto has less antinutrients and more advantageous plant components and enzymes.
How much natto do Japanese eat?
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released statistics in 2016, revealing that the average Japanese citizen consumes 41 packs of natt year. People in Tohoku’s Aomori Prefecture are the biggest fans of natto, with one person consuming 68 packets annually, according to individual prefectures. That equates to around 1.5 natt packs each week.
Miyagi, Niigata, Gunma, and Ibaraki Prefecture are strong competitors. Due to their quantity of rice fields, Tohoku (Northeast Japan) and Niigata appear to have such high consumption, whereas Ibaraki Prefecture is so high on the list due to its claimed role as the origin of natt.
In Okinawa and Wakayama Prefecture, on the other hand, people only consume 22 packs year on average. Even though that amounts to only one-third of Aomori’s intake, it still represents a once every two-week average.
Local tendencies exist. The Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kansai regions are home to the majority of the prefectures with the lowest natt consumption. White rice consumption in these regions of Japan is significantly lower than in the natt-loving Tohoku area due to the popularity of foods like okonomiyaki and wheat flour udon (thick noodles). It may be argued that people’s natt habits are significantly influenced by the local cuisine culture.
How Does Natto Benefit You?
Enhances Digestion: Probiotics found in abundance in natto improve gut health. According to studies, having the proper bacteria in your stomach might improve digestion and treat related problems. The helpful bacteria that natto is fermented with, Bacillus subtilis, can alleviate inflammatory bowel disease and colon mucosal inflammation.
The presence of antinutrients in soybeans is a problem. Antinutrients are substances that hinder digestion and obstruct the absorption of specific nutrients. According to studies, foods that have undergone fermentation (like natto) have less antinutrient content.
Getting adequate probiotics also helps with other digestive problems including diarrhea.
Boosts Bone Health: Natto consumption has been shown to enhance bone growth in studies on premenopausal women. Vitamin K2, a substance linked to better bone turnover and stiffness, is abundant in natto. Similar results were found in research on postmenopausal women. Natto’s menaquinone-7 can increase bone mineral density and ward against osteoporosis. Vitamin K2 is often referred to as menaquinone-7.
Enhances Immunity: Bacillus subtilis, a probiotic bacterium found in natto, has been shown in studies on aged participants to boost the immune system and shield them from disease. Studies on calves revealed similar results. Additionally, it was discovered that the Bacillus subtilis in natto helped white blood cells called macrophages, a crucial component of the human immune system, work more effectively.
Promotes Heart Health: Natto’s probiotics can help in this situation. According to studies, probiotics can reduce cholesterol levels, hence reducing the risk of heart disease. Natto also has nattokinase, which is concentrated in the stringy and sticky parts of the food. It has been discovered that nattokinase lowers blood clots, hence reducing cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, nattokinase has anti-coagulant, anti-atherosclerotic, and neuroprotective properties that all support heart health. One of the uncommon substances with pharmacological effects that even most medicines lack is nattokinase, according to research. Natto extracts were also discovered to have anti-hypertensive properties in a different investigation. The vitamin K2 in natto also prevents calcium buildup in artery walls.
Several Japanese studies also found that natto consumption was inversely associated with cardiovascular disease
May Cut Cancer Risk: Natto’s soy composition and vitamin K2 content both have the ability to prevent cancer. It has been discovered that soy isoflavones reduce the incidence of breast, prostate, and gastrointestinal cancers. Liver cancer risk was found to be lower when vitamin K2 was present.
Natto was discovered to have anticarcinogenic effects in a different Japanese investigation. According to another study, soy can lower the risk of dying from stomach cancer. This is explained by soy’s isoflavones, which are more abundant in fermented soy products like natto.
May Aid Weight Loss: Natto contains probiotics that may aid with weight loss. According to studies, taking probiotic supplements can help stop the growth of body mass and fat mass.
Consuming probiotics can change the makeup of the gut’s microbial population. This raises energy metabolism, which could potentially help you lose weight.