Nutrition

As Natto’s Popularity Grows, U.S. Soy Eyes Further Opportunities

What is natto? While many consumers have heard of this popular soyfood, they still might be unsure as to what natto actually is.

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. Fermentation breaks down the proteins in the soybean, making it easier to digest than whole soybeans. Commonly eaten at breakfast, natto is popular in Japan for its health benefits. Natto soybeans are small, with a clear hilum and thin seed coat.

Natto, Fermented Soyfoods May Have Positive Benefits for Human Health

While it’s commonly known that natto and other soyfoods are a source of high-quality protein, there’s much more to know about natto, says Linda Funk, president of Flavorful Insight, a food marketing and public relations firm. Natto provides benefits to consumers. “As market demand has been gathering momentum for the past several years, consumer attitudes are paving the way for natto,” Funk states.

Probiotics/fermented foods may also boost immunity. Immunity ranks #7 among all health conditions that global consumers are very/extremely concerned about.[1]

Last year, an observational BMJ study showed that fermented soy products such as natto may reduce the risk of premature death[2].

The market for foods that promote digestive and gut health is a fast-growing one. In 2020, digestive health was the third most sought-after health benefit that consumers looked for in food[3] and that 48% of global shoppers are “extremely/very concerned” about gastrointestinal/digestive problems.[4] By 2026, global consumers are expected to spend $53.27 USD billion annually on foods, beverages and supplements that help improve digestive health.[5]

Natto Taps into Food and Flavor Trends

In addition to its appeal for those seeking out healthy options, Funk says natto interests adventurous diners who want to explore global flavors, world cuisines, and traditional ingredients; consumers who favor minimally processed, simple ingredients; and consumers who look for artisanal foods.

Personalized nutrition, the concept of adapting food to individual needs, is a growing trend. In 2018, Datassential reported that 73% of consumers want some type of personalization and are seeking nutrition that goes beyond one-size-fits-all approaches. At that time, personalized nutrition was predicted to grow by $17 billion over the next four years.[6]

Functional foods, those that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition, is another area of growth where natto could potentially shine. 78% of consumers say they want more functional foods and beverages at restaurants, while 80% of consumers want more functional foods and beverages at retail.[7]

And fermented foods continue to appeal to consumers. For the fourth year, fermented foods once again took the top spot on the list of “Top Superfoods for 2021.”[8]

Finally, according to the 2020 National Restaurant Association “What’s Hot” 2020 Culinary Forecast, ethnic breakfast dishes and Japanese umami (specifically listing natto, tamari and tare) are trending. Natto fits into both of these categories.

Growing the Natto Market

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for natto surged as consumers sought shelf-stable options.

U.S. Soy supplies around 70%[9] of the soybeans used as raw materials to Japan’s natto industry. USSEC has built a close relationship with the Japan Natto Cooperative Society Federation (JNCSF), organizing technical training such as “U.S. Soy Production Short Training for Next-Generation Owners” and establishing the U.S. soy award series in the national natto competition.

“We have been evolving the close face-to-face relationship between Japanese natto manufacturers and U.S. soybean farmers/suppliers through initiatives such as organizing a natto summit between the two countries that began two years ago,” says USSEC Director – Human Utilization for Northeast Asia and Japan Masako (Masi) Tateishi.

Due to COVID-19, USSEC has not held major natto activities since March 2020, including the annual natto competition and String Day Event. Tateishi says as awareness increases about natto’s benefits to potentially help boost the immune system, she expects demand for fermented foods, including natto, to continue to grow.

The U.S. soy industry and farmers continue to work to innovate to meet the needs of international customers, with investments taking place in developing new natto soybean varieties.

Brushvale Seed, a soyfood supplier based in Breckenridge, Minnesota, has started to develop high oleic natto soyfood varieties.

“We are working to develop high oleic natto varieties that meet the needs of our customers,” says Aaron Mohs, research agronomist at Brushvale Seed. “Breeding a soybean that continues to have high protein, small seed size, and good yield, while exhibiting a high oleic fatty acid profile has been a challenge. However, we are happy to say that we expect to have a commercialized high oleic natto bean available for international buyers to purchase in the next few years.”

Natto Film

An 8-minute film, Natto – the Power of Life, was recently produced by the Japan Natto Cooperative Society Federation (JNCSF), to support the overseas expansion of natto. The movie features the first successful filming of natto bacteria contributing to the increase of lactic acid bacteria within a test environment that mimics the inside of the human intestines. The process of natto bacteria going from spore to germination, division and then again to a spore form had so far been identified fragmentally. This is the first time, however, that the full process has been captured on video. The video clearly conveys how natto bacteria has an overwhelmingly high speed of multiplying, compared to colon bacillus and other bacteria, and it can limit the effects of harmful bacteria. Because of the increase in inquiries from overseas, USSEC sponsored the production of this English version of the movie, which provides a closer look at natto production and its effects on human health.

The Japan Science Foundation awarded the Science and Technology Movie Award to the natto film and JNCSF attended the award ceremony held in Tokyo’s Science Museum on April 16, 2021.

[1] HealthFocus International Global Gut Health Report, 2020

[2] https://ussoy.org/fermented-soy-associated-with-lower-mortality-risk-according-to-study/

[3] IFIC Food & Health Survey, 2020

[4] HealthFocus International 2020 Global Gut Health Report, 2020

[5] Acumen Research and Consulting, Digestive Health Products Market. Aug. 2019

[6] Datassential FoodBytes, Sept. 2018

[7] Datassential FoodBytes, Sept. 2018

[8] Pollock Communications, January 13, 2021, “What’s Trending in Nutrition” Annual Survey of Dietitians.

[9] Japan Natto Cooperative Society Federation

Will McNair

Director - Human Protein & Oil

U.S. Soybean Export Council

Will McNair serves as the Director of Human Protein and Oil for the U.S. Soybean Export Council.