If you are like 99.99% of non-Japanese people you either cannot stomach the fermented soybean that is natto, or you’re yet to try it because you’ve only heard how unpalatable it is.
Well, this is a great shame because this traditional Japanese staple is truly the healthiest food in the world. Particularly for foreigners living in Japan where its accessibility is high, you are missing out if you’re not eating natto on the daily.
When considering the criteria of foods that can deservedly be touted ‘super’ or ‘power’ foods, as I prefer to call them, we need to take into account several things.
Firstly, the nutrient density of a food. This can be considered the micronutrients divided by calories. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals crucial for hormonal functioning and prevention of disease, and can be esteemed as the smaller cousins of macronutrients that most people erroneously place more importance on.
While natto is more calorific and thus less nutrient-dense than certain vegetables like kale (to use a classic example), it is still abundant in many super important micronutrients and outweighs these other vegetables in other notable criteria.
Natto satisfies almost the entire spectrum of micronutrients that we need to function optimally, but the hallmark micronutrient in natto is vitamin K2, a nutrient scarce amongst food sources. Vitamin K2 is strongly implicated in the prevention of heart disease and reduced bone mineral density. This is mostly because K2 works synergistically with calcium to promote osteogenesis while averting calcium plaque accumulation in our blood vessels.
Another salient criterion is satiety and this is where natto, believe it or not for the natto-naysayers, easily conquers its competitor foods. Satiety is largely dictated by micronutrient content, protein quantity, and dietary fibre. Countless studies also demonstrate higher post-meal satiety with how savoury a food is, in contrast to foods on the sweet end of the taste spectrum.
Natto’s distinct umami flavour constitutes savoury and it has a solid balance of all the macronutrients. Perhaps more noteworthy is the impeccable quality of these macronutrients; complex carbohydrates to attenuate any rapid blood glucose excursion, a generous omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acid profile, and a protein milieu that boasts the full array of amino acids.
A superfood isn’t very practical or accessible to everyone if it costs the average weekly grocery budget, and most ‘superfoods’ are ridiculously expensive. This is where natto triumphs again, costing just 39 yen at a local Japanese supermarket for a 3 pack (or 135g). 39 yen is a mere 50 Australian cents.
In Australia, a 4x45g pack will cost you ~$2. And so it is fair to say that the affordability of natto compared to other esteemed superfoods is unparalleled – though it should be a fixture even on the grocery list of those not looking to maximise their health on a budget!
Natto is of course a plant-based food and thus keeps the ethically-mindful crowd happy. I’m not a vegan but if I were this would hands-down be my number one staple. It still is my number 1 powerhouse food as an omnivore. The only other plant-based food that comes close to natto from a protein quality perspective is quinoa.
Protein quality is a huge factor in muscle protein synthesis and this can be a notable shortcoming when eschewing meat and dairy. More specifically, vegan sources of protein lack adequate amounts of the amino acid leucine, which is the most potent stimulator of muscle protein synthesis but only when a threshold of around 3g has been consumed. Natto contains about 2.5g per 1 cup which is quite impressive and sufficient given it will generally be consumed with other food.
Let’s not forget that natto is produced by means of fermentation, similar to sauerkraut and kefir, and so offers the further benefit of gut-friendly probiotics. It is prudent to consume some form of probiotics at least once daily as this good bacteria aids in digestibility of a meal, strengthens the gut’s integrity and thus enhances our ability to assimilate nutrients from food.
How to consume it: I would advise for first-timers to eat it how most Japanese people eat it for breakfast; that is, with rice and an egg or multiple eggs. Crack a raw egg into just cooked rice, then add the natto on top. You can be generous with soy sauce, mustard and any other seasoning if you hold the preconception that natto isn’t tasty.
After you acquire the taste you may find yourself enhancing every meal with a topping of natto…Or at least that’s what I do anyway!
Give this special Japanese staple a go and let me know how you like it.