Stirring natto vigorously with some other ingredients produces a gooey mixture, which is often eaten over rice.

Natto Gains Popularity as a Health Food
November 28, 2002

A unique food called natto, which is made by fermenting soy beans and has been eaten widely in Japan since the Edo period (1603-1868), is enjoying unprecedented popularity as more and more people turn to it for its health-boosting properties. It is likely to be a record year for natto sales in 2002.

Smell Puts Some People Off
Natto is produced by adding the bacillus of the same name to steamed soybeans for fermentation. It boasts a variety of health benefits, including helping fatigued people regain their vigor and preventing heart disease and high blood pressure. Some people dislike natto, however, due to its extremely sticky texture and strong odor. It was originally produced in the eastern part of Japan, so it is more popular there than in western regions. While it has a poor reputation among some foreigners in Japan, others acquire a taste for it. The smell, which is what puts off most natto detractors - both foreign and Japanese - may no longer be an issue, though, as aroma-free varieties of natto have been developed and are one of the factors behind the boom in sales.

When eating natto, the beans are first stirred vigorously with chopsticks. Many people also add mustard, soy sauce, and green onions, and the mixture is often eaten after it is poured over rice. Natto retains the nutrients that are naturally present in soybeans, and the natto bacillus used in production makes the food even healthier by providing further nutrients.

Health Benefits
Natto is even more effective than yogurt at increasing the amount of health-promoting bifidus bacilli in the large intestine. It also contains linoleic acid, which may help prevent cancer; arginine, which has been shown to boost stamina; vitamin B2, which helps the body fight fatigue; and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that may help reduce the effects of aging. And in 1988 it was confirmed that natto contains an enzyme called nattokinase that reduces blood clots. Such discoveries have caused the popularity of natto to soar.

Notwithstanding its nutritional value, though, the pungency and stickiness of natto have acted as a brake on consumption. But despite the widespread impression in Japan that non-Japanese cannot eat natto, a TV station reported in a special feature on the food that a natural-foods store in New York has begun selling natto. The store notes that while the first customers were Japanese families living in the area, recently all sorts of people are buying natto. Americans purchasing natto at the store were heard to say such things as "My menstrual cramps have almost disappeared," and "I used to get angry easily, but now I don't even get irritated."

The different ways that some Americans eat natto, though, would probably surprise many Japanese. The program showed an American woman adding honey to the natto, stirring in fried sesame seeds, and spreading the mixture onto crackers.

Aroma-Free Natto Boosts Sales
Natto with little or no aroma has recently hit the supermarket shelves. One particular brand launched in September 2000 uses a special type of natto bacillus that suppresses the development of fatty acids, which are one of the causes of the odor. Another brand that debuted in 2001 makes use of brewer's yeast to limit the amount of ammonia in the natto. These aroma-free versions of natto are fueling its growing popularity, encouraging those who had previously been put off by the smell to give it a try.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts, and Telecommunications, average annual spending on natto by Japanese households, which was ¥1,289 per year in 1980, rose to ¥2,532 in 1990 and to ¥4,097 in 1998. Consumption of natto dropped off in 1999 due to the impact of an accident at a uranium-processing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, a major soy-bean-growing area, that year, but it appears to have rebounded even stronger than ever; sales for January-July 2002 came to ¥2,474 ($20.62 at ¥120 to the dollar) per household, making it certain that consumption this year will exceed that of 1998, the all-time peak. And the development of aroma-free natto means that the large-scale export and overseas production of this food is no longer out of the question.

Copyright (c) 2002 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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