When Americans think of breakfast food, they likely picture pancakes, waffles, or dry cereal. When Japanese people think of breakfast food, they might picture natto.
Natto’s nutty flavor, distinct sticky consistency, and myriad health benefits have made it a staple in Japanese diets for centuries. In recent years, natto’s profile has grown as more Americans search for it online and find it on the shelves of specialty markets.
We break down what natto is, how it’s created, and its numerous benefits before offering ideas on adding natto to your diet.
What Is Natto?
Natto is a traditional Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans. It has a distinct smell and texture and has been described as having a nutty flavor. Natto is stringy, sticky, and one of the few processed foods where the whole soybean retains its shape and mouthfeel. In addition to its unique texture and taste, natto has an exceptional nutritional profile and is regarded as a superfood.
While this might be the first time you learn of natto, the dish is not new. Natto was popularized during Japan’s Edo Period, from 1603 to 1868.
Typically served at room temperature, natto is an everyday breakfast option in Japan, where it’s commonly included in hotel breakfast buffets. Japanese citizens and tourists alike can thank U.S. Soy for this delicious and nutritious breakfast, as U.S. Soy supplies approximately 70% of the soybeans used as raw materials in Japan’s natto industry.
How Is Natto Made?
Consuming natto might be a convenient way to help meet your daily recommended nutrition intake, but the natto making process is anything but quick and easy.
Natto manufacturers begin making this popular breakfast food by immersing soybeans in water. Next, they steam the soybeans and spray them with bacteria to kickstart the fermentation process. Natto ferments for 18 to 24 hours at 40-42℃/107.6F in a special fermentation room. After fermentation, natto is transferred to a refrigerator where it chills out for at least one day and up to one week.
Watch our video about natto’s fermentation process and superfood status.:
What are the Different Types of Natto?
Natto comes in several varieties, making it easy to incorporate into different meals. Let’s delve into the three main types of natto:
Otsubu: Otsubu is made from larger soybeans, which do not get as sticky as smaller soybeans. Otsubu can be served on its own or as a side dish. You can change things up by serving otsubu hot in miso soup, known as nattojiru.
Kotsubu: Kotsubu is made from smaller soybeans than otsubu. It is stickier and pairs nicely with rice.
Hikiwari: Made from crushed soybeans, hikiwari’s smooth texture makes it perfect for cooking with. Hikiwari is often used to make maki rolls.
The Health Benefits of Eating Natto
From kimchi to Greek yogurt, the health benefits of fermented foods are well-documented, and natto is no exception. Fermented foods contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn, contributes to better overall health. A healthy gut microbiome is linked to a strong immune system and a reduction of inflammation inside the body, which may help in the prevention and management of everything from obesity and diabetes to neurodegenerative diseases.
In addition to offering the health benefits associated with consuming fermented foods, natto provides a unique blend of key nutrients and supports body systems and processes that play a role in whole body health. Here are some additional benefits of consuming natto:
- Nutrient Rich: One serving of natto contains 78% of the daily recommended intake of copper, which stimulates the production of red blood cells and regulates heart rate and blood pressure. Copper also helps the body absorb iron — another nutrient found in natto. Natto is also rich in manganese, which supports healthy brain and nerve function and helps the body form connective tissue.
- Supports Healthy Digestion: Due to its ability to aid digestion and help you stay fuller longer, fiber is an important component of weight management. At 19 grams per serving, natto is a significant source of fiber, which 95% of American adults and children are deficient in.
- Strengthens Bones: Natto is a dairy-free source of calcium as well as Vitamin K2, which activates proteins that help strengthen bones and retain calcium. Having a high bone density helps protect against diseases, like osteoporosis.
- Promotes Heart and Circulatory Health: Natto protects heart and circulatory health in many ways. For starters, natto is made from soy, the only plant protein recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its cardiovascular benefits. Furthermore, high-fiber foods, like natto, can help reduce cholesterol levels. In addition to being linked to a reduction in cholesterol levels, natto can help prevent blood clots. Natto’s fermentation process creates nattokinase, an enzyme that helps dissolve blood clots. The “stringy portion” of natto seems to be particularly rich in nattokinase.
How to Eat More Natto
Soy has many culinary applications. Some of soy’s more commonly known applications include soy milk, tofu, and vegetable oil. However, natto is quickly gaining traction. For a food with such a unique flavor profile and consistency, natto is unexpectedly versatile and can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Adding Natto to Breakfast
If you’re a fan of the classics, you might enjoy eating natto in the style of generations of Japanese families. A traditional Japanese breakfast consists of grilled fish, known as yakizakana (salmon is a popular choice), miso soup, and natto served over steamed white or brown rice. The fish, soup, and natto topped rice is served with side dishes of pickled vegetables called tsukemono, seasoned dried seaweed, called nori, and vegetable side dishes called kobachi that include fresh vegetables and salads.
Weekdays might call for a more convenient natto breakfast option. Double your intake of gut healthy fermented foods by adding kimchi to your bowl of natto and rice or swap rice for an avocado base.
Adding Natto to Lunch and Dinner
Though it’s traditionally a breakfast food, natto is easy to incorporate into both hot and room temperature entrees for lunch or dinner. For example, natto can be placed at the center of a sushi roll to provide plant protein in place of traditional sushi protein sources. Natto can also be a great addition to a bowl of udon or ramen noodles, as the simple noodles complement natto’s complexity.
Where Can I Buy Natto?
You’ll likely find natto at your local Asian specialty market. Don’t have one nearby? You have options. While natto isn’t currently available in the Asian foods aisle at most mainstream American supermarkets, Amazon carries a wide selection of natto varieties available for order. You can also find natto at Target and Walmart, or on food delivery services like FreshDirect.
Natto: A Japanese Classic Catches On
Natto’s bold flavor and distinct consistency makes it an exciting meal to start your day with or a welcome addition at the lunch or dinner table. Understanding what natto is, how it’s made, and why it’s healthy can expand your culinary horizons and open you up to benefiting from natto’s multifaceted nutritional profile. In addition to its unique taste, texture, and unlikely versatility, natto offers health benefits that range from enhanced digestion to disease prevention.Natto joins other soy foods in supporting a healthy lifestyle and a sustainable diet. Visit our Soy Ingredient Index to learn more about the many varieties and applications of soy-based ingredients!