We’ve heard of superfoods and we’ve heard of fermented foods. What about a fermented superfood?
Say hello to natto!
This traditional Japanese food item is an incredibly nutritious and powerful gut-friendly agent. So, how does a fermented superfood such as natto come to be? Take whole soybeans, some soaking, some steaming (or boiling), and a dash of Bacillus subtilis.
Let’s take a more detailed look at where natto comes from, how it’s made, and, most importantly, the best ways to incorporate it into your diet!
Making Soybeans Safe through Fermenting
The basis of natto is whole soybeans.
Soybeans “are a member of the legume family,” right alongside other plant-based diet staples such as beans, peas, lentils and even peanuts. Yet, not all soybeans are equal. Sourced from Japan, soybeans are natural, fresh, and healthy. Unfortunately, soybean products that you are able to purchase directly at your local grocery store are actually genetically modified (GMO), which means they are “produced in a different way and [they don’t] yield the same nutritional benefits.”
So, how do you make sure you’re consuming a safe, non-GMO soy product? Go for the fermented version called natto!
Fermented soybeans “have a completely different product that boasts an entirely separate set of nutrients, which is why when it comes to soy, the safest and best way to consume it is through fermented foods like miso, tempeh or natto.”
How is Natto Made?
If you haven’t heard about natto, don’t think you’re being left out. It’s a relatively new food to Western culture and it’s definitely an acquired taste. natto is a “traditional food usually consumed at Japanese breakfast tables together with miso soup, fish and rice.” While other soybean-based products — tofu, tempeh, and miso — are all known for being healthy, natto has the added fermentation benefit, making it an up and coming superfood.
natto is made by fermenting cooked soybeans. First, whole soybeans are soaked. Next, they are steamed or boiled. Lastly, for the fermentation processes, a culture is added, in this case, the bacteria Bacillus subtilis. The last step is time. Once an appropriate amount of fermentation time passes, natto is ready for consumption.
Health Benefits of Natto
The end result is a gut-friendly, highly nutritious plant-based food rich with vitamin K, probiotics, and nattokanise — an enzyme “created during the fermentation process … used for a variety of medicinal purposes.” Plus, natto is known for promoting bone health, heart health, digestive health, and, due to the nattokanise, it has a laundry list of other medicinal uses such as infertility, pain, cancer, muscle spasms, and stroke.
Good Source of Vitamin K
You’ve heard of vitamin K. You’ve definitely eaten vitamin K. Yet, what does this elusive fat-soluble vitamin do for you? First off, there are various forms of vitamin K including “phylloquinone (vitamin K1) and a series of menaquinones (vitamin K2).” The vitamin K that humans ingest normally is vitamin K1, which is present in green leafy veggies, yet natto is one of the rare sources of vitamin K2, “which are predominantly of bacterial origin … [and are present in] fermented foods,” as well as naturally produced in our gut. Vitamin K2 is “considered a key component in maintaining the bone mineral density of postmenopausal women suffering from osteoporosis. natto contains “100 times more vitamin K2 than cheese,” is one of the very few “plant-based sources of vitamin K2,” and is also attributed to a lower risk of artery calcification, heart disease, an increase in bone mass, and the “slowing of bone loss that occurs over time.”
In many of my articles, I’ve talked extensively about the powerful properties of fermented foods on gut health. natto is no exception! Due to the fermentation that the whole soybeans go through, they are infused with probiotics — “good bacteria that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria that are already in your body.” These probiotics actually protect your gut from “toxins and harmful bacteria,” and, for those with gut-related discomfort, can help reduce many symptoms including “gas, constipation, antibiotic-associated diarrhea and bloating, in addition to symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.”
Plant-Based Source of Bone Strengthen Vitamins
If you’re practicing a strict plant-based diet, then you know the challenges of getting enough bone-strengthening vitamins. As mentioned above, natto is one of the best sources of vitamin K2, one of the most powerful agents in increasing bone mass and circumventing osteoporosis. Yet, natto has more than just vitamin K2 when it comes to bone-strengthening nutrients. In fact, a 100-gram serving of this fermented superfood “provides 22 [percent] of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium,” one of the main building block minerals for your skeletal framework.
Increases Heart Health
Natto increases heart health through several avenues. First off, this fermented superfood “contains fiber and probiotics, both of which can help reduce cholesterol levels,” which lowers the risk of heart disease. Plus, natto is rich in nattokinase, “a type of enzyme that helps dissolve blood clots,” which is attributed to a range of heart-healthy factors such as lowering high blood pressure, helping reduce chest pain, and in treatment for stroke, arteriosclerosis, peripheral artery disease, and heart disease. Plus, researchers in Japan found that “natto may help lower blood pressure by inactivating angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE), which helps control blood pressure.”
Boosts the Immune System
First off, natto is “rich in vitamin C, iron, zinc, selenium and copper,” which are all important for immune system health.” Secondly, while research into the connection between natto and immune health is preliminary, the current findings regarding probiotics and immune health are incredibly positive. No matter which way you look at it, probiotic-rich foods are linked to a healthy human body. This means that a diet rich in probiotics has a healthier gut flora, which “helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and may even boost your production of natural antibodies.” On top of that, probiotics are linked to a reduced risk of infection, a quicker recovery, and a “33 percent reduced likelihood of needing antibiotics to recover from an infection.”
How to Use Natto
By now, you may be itching to get your hands on this fermented superfood! Yet, be warned that natto is not for the faint of heart. This fermented soybean not only has a strong ammonia-like smell (much like “old socks and cheese”), but it also has a bitter taste and is a sticky, stringy concoction. With that said, there are creative ways to integrate this unique superfood into your diet. Here are a few ways!
Due to natto’s rise in popularity over the last five or so years, it has become much easier to find. If you have a local grocery store or Asian market nearby, you may be able to purchase it directly from the store shelf. Yet, one of the easiest ways to find natto is online. When purchasing online, natto is oftentimes referred to as Japanese fermented beans, as well as natto.
If you’re looking for an easy to consume variety of natto, try your hand at the dried beans such as these Japanese Dried Fermented Beans or this Japanese Dried natto. Along the “simple-to-consume” guidelines, natto is also oftentimes dried and then ground into powder, which can be used when cooking, such as this Marumo natto Powder or this Sagawashoyu natto Powder.
If you’re looking for the all-natural, fresh natto online, there aren’t as many options to choose from, yet you can definitely find them, such as this Rhapsody Natural Foods Fresh natto create in Vermont with non-GMO soybeans.
Lastly, you can make your own natto by using a starter kit, such as this Nattomoto Japanese natto Starter Spores.
Now that you’ve got your favorite form of natto — dried, raw, powdered, or homegrown — how do you cook with it?
Traditionally in the Japanese culture, natto was consumed during breakfast, mixed with hearty rice — such as this Basic Brown Rice — and strong flavored pickled vegetables, — such as these Crispy Flavorful Pickles or these Pickled Asian Cucumber Salad — or used in miso soup, which you can easily make such as this How to Make Miso Soup in 10 Minutes recipe.
With that said, if you’re looking for a westernized approach, you can mix natto into a variety of plant-based recipes. A good tip is to make sure the recipe is already using powerful flavors that co-mingle in a friendly fashion with the unique and pungent taste and aroma of natto.
For smoothies, try adding your natto powder to a sweeter concoction such as this Beetroot Smoothie, this 3-Ingredient Mango Smoothie, or this decadent Sweet Potato Pie Smoothie. If you’re using raw natto, mix it in with your favorite high-spice or strong-flavored stir-fry recipes such as this Sticky Spicy Cauliflower stir-fry, this Pineapple and Cashew Stir-Fry with Caramelized Tofu, or this Maple Miso Tofu with Butternut Squash and Broccoli. Dried natto is wonderful sprinkled on your favorite hearty or citrus-infused salad such as this Moroccan Sweet Potato Salad, this Gingery Carrot and Daikon Salad, or this Toasted Coconut and Green Mango Salad.
Looking for more recipes to infuse with natto? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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