JTF Helps Young Tsunami Victims in Japan

Left: Mitsunaga, a volunteer, holding up a poster with our company’s “Japan relief” symbol

Since Japan Traditional Foods (JTF) started selling Natto Taro last May, we have been collecting $0.10 of every purchase of this product for a donation for the children that were affected by last year’s Earthquake and Tsunami disaster.

As of September, 2011, $280 has been donated, and last month, a clock was donated to the Kuzumaki Highland Farm, an organization in Iwate prefecture where the son of Dallas Akimoto, factory manager at JTF, volunteers.

 

The donation was made in the hopes that children affected by the disaster would spend time with other children, give and receive support from their peers, make new friendships, understand nature’s hardships, and appreciate food and precious resources.

CEO/Founder  Minami Satoh

Above:  Smiling kids holding up a catalogue of 5 adorable clocks

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Latest Research on Natto Revealed at Health Food Seminar in Tokyo

On December 13, 2010, the 7th Annual Natto Health Food Seminar was held in Hamamatsu-cho, Tokyo, at the WTC Conference Center (World Trade Center Building, 3rd Floor).

The seminar’s theme was “how natto can contribute to a healthy mind and body,” and the objective of the seminar was for participants to gain further understanding of natto through the latest research on food nutritional science, food culture, and general macrobiotic food research.

Bacillus natto

Professor Nishihori, of Shikoku College, Human Health Division, Dietary Nutrition, presented his results on “natto’s polyamine concentrations – how to measure polyamine content.” Professor Nishihori reports that there are three types of polyamines involved in cell growth, with spermidine and spermine having the greatest anti-aging effects. Many different types of beans contain these two elements, especially if they are dried, but when these beans are made into baked beans, tofu, or miso, the polyamine content is greatly reduced. However, even when natto is preserved, the content of these two polyamines is not affected, therefore making natto a highly polyamine-concentrated product. One pack (50g) of natto contains 20% of a Japanese individual’s intake of spermidine and spermine, making natto a favorable source of polyamines.

Lastly, Assistant Professor Soda, of Saitama Medical Center Jichi Medical University spoke on the additional benefits of natto’s polyamines. According to Assistant Professor Soda, the molecular weight of the component in the human body that can be absorbed from the intestines and that digests and absorbs favorable elements is 1,000. Because spermidine and spermine, the polyamines contained in natto, have a molecular weight of 200, they are extremely easy to absorb. It has been shown that these polyamines are able to inhibit LFA-1, an inciting factor for inflammation, which can result in thrombosis.

Based upon an analysis of data from the WHO’s epidemiology survey and research on polyamine content in foods, Assistant Professor Soda recommends a Mediterranean diet, which includes olive oil, fruit, cheese, yoghurt, and seafood. Additionally, he explained that eating, on average, one pack (40~50g) of natto a day may prevent lifestyle-related diseases and the polyamines in natto may prevent diseases like arterial sclerosis.

 

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Megumi in Alaska

This is just brief note to let you know that I (Ricky, current blogger) have moved to Alaska and will soon be far from computers and the internet for quite a while. Until Minami (Owner, CEO of Megumi) can find a replacement, new posts will likely be sporadic or nonexistant. Sorry about that.

But I’ve included a pretty picture for your viewing pleasure in the interim:

 

Hope you’ve enjoyed the blog.

 

-Ricky

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Fermented Food in the U.S.A.

We spent all day last Saturday handing out samples and conversing with passersby at the Freestone Fermentation Festival (an annual event held near our hometown of Sebastopol). It was surprisingly well-attended, pulling people from around the country with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. I personally spoke with farmers, chefs, health enthusiasts, small-scale food producers, journalists, professors, students, concerned mothers, small children who had gotten lost on the way to their Little League game, et cetera. Needless to say, many of them were trying natto for the first time in their lives.

We were one of maybe fifty booths, proffering tastes of fermented food from all over the world; there were multiple varieties of kraut, kimchi, kvass, kefir, kombucha, yogurt, cheese, sourdough bread, tempeh, lacto-fermented olives, chocolate, and on and on and on. The quality and variety of products — and the creative enthusiasm to which they attest — was quite impressive.

I spent a fair amount of time hovering in front of our Megumi booth, asking people for their thoughts and reactions. Conversation frequently focused on the experience of eating natto, and specifically how it differs from other fermented foods. For most people in this crowd, the unique flavors, textures, and health-benefits available in fermented foods are a fact of life; even for them, however, natto remains something of a mystery. Their impressions were actually quite different from what I expected.

Quite a few first-timers enjoyed the fact that natto doesn’t carry the same acidic bite as many other ferments. In comparison to the likes of sauerkraut and kimchi, natto is decidedly soothing, and people were much more apt to comment on this fact rather than its taste or smell — which very few found objectionable.

A woman named Hannah, from the East Bay, might be a typical example: she’d never had natto before, but liked it for its texture. “Creamy. Interesting. I don’t know, it’s not much like anything else I’ve had before.” It’s taste? Even harder to pin down. “Like miso, maybe? Something like that?” We have few references with which we can contextualize the experience.

Another woman thought it tasted nutty. Something like boiled peanuts, she said. “But, no, maybe that’s just because it looks the same. Now I’m not sure.” So she took another sample. “No, it’s not boiled peanuts exactly. I don’t know what it is.” She first tried natto a few years ago, inside a sushi roll; it was surprising, she said, and that was precisely why she liked it. Which may be true for many of us.

My favorite exchange was with the 8-year-old boys who had gotten lost on the way to their baseball game: “Ewwww, that’s weird.” Pause. “Can I have another one?” It seemed a succinct summary of many people’s reactions that day.

Many others said they were buying natto to give to friends, or to highlight at dinner parties. Amongst a certain type of food-lovers, natto holds a special place as an esoteric and somewhat refined experience. Which isn’t to say that people have debaucherous natto-feasts like some do with endangered species of animals, or strange cuts of offal…it is perhaps more comparable to the appreciative interest surrounding the likes of civet coffee, certain artisan cheeses, or good biodynamic wine. It’s a nice thing to sit with, quietly alone, or convivial with others; something to set one day apart from the others.

A man named Jeremy, from Berkeley, had some interesting thoughts to share in this regard. He has a good friend whose Japanese wife used to serve them natto regularly when he would stop by to visit. A cup of tea, some natto, a pleasant conversation — the food was part of a ritual, and has since become something of a symbol of friendship and generosity. It’s a matter of memory as well as taste. But he said the taste, for him, is different than with most other foods. “It’s like they say about pu-erh tea, the taste is from the neck down. It starts in your throat and goes down to your stomach; it’s really not about taste so much as sensation. It’s a feeling you get when you eat.” I asked him what exactly that feeling is, and he was at a loss for specifics. “It’s not always immediate. It’s not obvious. It’s more long-term, like for your health; you feel better in general when you eat natto. So I guess when you actually eat it you’re getting some condensed version of that feeling. It’s healthy. It feels good.”

Overall, the day left us eager for more opportunities to engage with world outside of Japanese food connoisseurs. And it left us feeling optimistic that Americans may one day come to accept natto as a part of their (relatively) standard fare.

For me at least, this possibility appeared most vividly during a brief conversation with Sandor Ellix-Katz (who introduced so many of us to the pleasures of fermented foods with Wild Fermentation). Contrary to the dominant “you love it or you hate it” dogma (see previous post: https://meguminatto.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/how-to-eat-natto/), Sandor didn’t like natto when he first tried it, but has since changed his mind. After a friend served it to him stirred with scrambled eggs, sauteed mushrooms, and chopped fresh onion, he had a revelation; now he eats it often. Which is probably why he plans to include recipes in his new book (slated to come out sometime this year). Sandor’s example, and his endorsement, seem like reason enough to hope for the future of natto in America.

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Nattokinase, Fibrinogen, and Thrombin: Some More Reasons to Eat Natto

According to the experts — many of them, anyway — natto is the perfect food for curing what ails most Americans. There’s a large body (pun!) of evidence suggesting that eating natto on a daily basis significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure (all exacerbated or caused by excessive blood-clotting), as well as arthritis and rheumatism (caused by stiff or swollen internal tissues). It is bold to claim that natto can prevent so many ailments, and unless you dig a little deeper, it probably seems no more reliable than the claims made for any other health-food or supplement. But I think natto is different. The evidence is there, and it’s worth paying attention to, if only for a few minutes…

The specific details of how natto does its magic are still being sorted out in scientific inquiries, but it appears pretty safe for us to think of it as a natural dispersing agent inside your body; when things (especially certain proteins) start getting together and creating problematic little bundles of blood or tissue, natto helps them to relax and break apart again.

This property of natto appears to be due to the presence of a unique enzyme, called nattokinase, which was first identified by Dr. Hiroyuki Sumi in 1980. He was studying the thrombus-destroying power of a variety of conventional medicines at Chicago University, and put some natto in the Petri dish on a whim.  (“Thrombus” is one of many technical names for a blood clot that blocks arterial flow, causing heart attacks, etc.). Anyway, the thrombus was completely dissolved with 18 hours, which was far less time than what was needed for any of the other medicines he was working with. So he was impressed. He went on to isolate nattokinase as the active agent in natto,  and has since examined its significance extensively; he remains a pioneer in the field. (People in the industry are fond of referring to him as “Dr. Natto”). His studies are widely available in English online, but here’s a decent place to start if you’re interested in a little more depth: http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Doi=205051&Scope=archiv.

I’m not a biologist, chemist, or otherwise certified professional, but I have read a bit of what those folks have published, and it appears that there is one overwhelming component in the body’s formation of both blood clots and stiff internal tissues. It’s name is fibrin. Fibrin is a naturally occurring substance, created when two proteins — fibrinogen and thrombin — interact.

Fibrin is essential to many bodily functions, but when you’ve got too much of it, bad things start to happen. And (you guessed it) most Americans have too much of it. Nattokinase is an extremely effective fibrin-destroyer (fibrinolytic agent, its called), which is a large part of what makes it so good for you — think of the dissolving thrombus in the Petri dish — but before we can appreciate this point fully we should probably take a closer look at fibrin and its constituent components.

Here’s an interesting little story about fibrinogen: back in 1929, a few curious men working at the Rockefeller Institute removed the livers from a number of rabbits and observed that these (in technical terms, hepatectomized) bunnies ceased to produce fibrinogen. Wow! From that time on, the liver was acknowledged as the body’s sole source of fibrinogen. Though it’s unclear why exactly this was considered important at the time, subsequent studies have revealed fibrinogen to be an important ingredient in a wide spectrum of bodily functions…and have supported the supposition that your liver is its only source.

But fibrinogen still isn’t too exciting all by itself; once it comes into contact with thrombin, however, some interesting things start to happen. As far as I can tell, thrombin is pretty amazing stuff. It is basically an all-purpose glue for proteins, which – I’m sure you’ll be interested to know – has led to some sensational commercial applications.

Most notably, a Nebraska-based company has isolated thrombin from the blood of pigs and cows, named it Fibrimex, and figured out how to use it for creating all kinds of hybrid meat products like bacon-shrimp and bacon-salmon. They call the process “cold bonding,” and it’s basically a synthetic version of what goes on inside your body when fibrinogen and thrombin interact. (Rarely do we get such instructive visual analogues to internal biochemical processes). Fibrimex is billed as “a tool in innovative protein design [that] will change the way you think about meat.” Apparently they don’t realize how scary that sounds.

Anyway, both fibrinogen and thrombin are produced by the liver (via a complex cascade of reactions), and together they are vital to a number of your body’s daily functions. Namely, they help your blood to clot and various of your tissues to remain intact. Obviously, if your blood doesn’t clot you’ll bleed to death from even the tiniest of scratches, and if your tissues don’t remain intact neither will you. So fibrinogen + thrombin (= fibrin) is great. But again, only in the right amount.

When your liver isn’t happy (from processing too many toxins or fats, for example), it can start producing way more fibrin than you need, and you can start getting clots inside your arteries and/or stiff tissues, leading to heart attack and/or stroke, arthritis and/or rheumatism. Not fun. But depressingly common.

So now maybe we have a little better understanding of the importance of natto in our daily meals? Nattokinase — the key component in natto — is the strongest fibrinolytic enzyme out there. In acute situations (like right after a heart-attack), nattokinase seems to break fibrin apart at least as effectively as the enzymes used in any of the drugs currently prescribed by western doctors. (I’d probably get shot for writing that natto actually works better than those drugs — all I’m saying is that the enzyme nattokinase works more effectively than the enzymes those drugs employ — urokinase, originally isolated from human urine, for example).

But, as with most medicine-food, natto seems to work best when you take it little and often — as a preventative measure. (This is true partly because natto stimulates your body’s production of other fibrinolytic agents, and doesn’t work on nattokinase alone). It seems that when you eat natto on a regular basis, the acute disasters caused by clotting and stiffening are far less likely to appear. (For more details, you might start here: http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/107628002760091001).

Anyway, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare has granted nattokinase the status of a medicine, and regularly recommends that Japanese citizens eat more natto.  Though we can’t expect the FDA to follow suit any time soon, I’d rather not wait around until they figure it out…in the meantime, it seems like a safe bet to eat natto a few times a week, forget about the medicines, and go on enjoying life. That’s my plan, anyway.

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Avocado, Three Ways

Here’s a little story about avocados: Thailand, late-night; a small town with seven streets in the middle of the jungle; a young American, more than slightly tipsy, is hungry. The stars are brilliant, he realizes, and the sky is completely clear. A few birds chatter in vast humid darkness surrounding him.

There is a lone food-cart lit by a flickering street lamp. A man sits quietly behind it, listening to his radio.

The American feels in his drunken way that this is something special. He is lonely after months of travel, and he is mildly desperate for something special.

The American sits down to eat, and the man nods amiably; the only food he has to offer is an avocado. They sit together in the dark night, smoking cigarettes, watching the dogs and the stars, sharing an avocado.  They talk about avocados.

The Thai man loves avocados. His favorite recipe is to take sweetened condensed milk, whip it with sugar and an egg yolk until it’s thick and creamy, then fill the seed-divot with the mixture; eat with a spoon.

The American is happy. He loves avocado too. But he likes guacamole, spicy, with onion and lime juice and cayenne. The Thai man laughs at the crazy American, and the American laughs along with him…pondering the difference between them as they sit there. (How different it is to eat an avocado with sweet milk than with chilis and acid). It seems profound to him, this difference, though he isn’t sure why.

A good avocado is rich and creamy. Rather than countering or accentuating those tendencies — as with the men in the story — one of our real-life customers recently suggested an interesting alternative: eat it with natto. This man lives amongst 12 acres of avocado trees, so he’s had ample opportunity to experiment with the best ways to enjoy the fruit. His favorite method is to cut it in half, remove the seed, score the flesh, and stir a healthy dollop of natto in the middle. Observe:

Neba-neba natto stickiness has an effect similar to rich and fatty food – coating the mouth, glossing the throat, eliciting a sense of satisfaction – without actually being rich and fatty itself; accentuating the avocado-ness of the avocado, you could say, but not exactly.  They’re an interesting pair.

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Yao-Kiku, Hole in the Wall

Yao-Kiku is what most people would call a hole in the wall. It’s small, it isn’t well-known even in its hometown of Santa Rosa, but it’s been there for years — tucked away in an obscure shopping center — serving straightforward sushi, tempura, and other Japanese/American staples.

Other than those few facts, I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit there. Yelp reviews were typically bi-polar and unhelpful; as always, more interesting for their revelation of people’s quirks and prejudices than any reliable description of the food. But Yao-Kiku has recently begun featuring organic meat and produce on their menu, and they carry our Megumi Natto, so I figured I’d give it a try.

Sam Ogura, the chef and owner, is a surly fellow. Or maybe he’s just shy? Anyway, he’s an imposing presence behind the sushi counter. And for me especially: he was suspicious of my motives with the camera, he had never heard of me before, and he didn’t want to answer any questions. Despite my repeated explanation that I work with Megumi Natto he persisted in thinking (or saying) that I was with a local newspaper or magazine, and he didn’t want to be featured in any stories. His English isn’t too strong, so maybe it can all be chalked up to a language barrier…but I doubt it. Anyhow, he eventually agreed to let me write something online.

I’m too young to remember the days when rude waiters were in vogue, but I suspect the experience was something like what Yao-Kiku has to offer. (Not that the wait staff here is rude — they were actually quite friendly and accommodating — but their presence is basically negligible compared to Sam’s.

Frankly, I was charmed. With so many people talking about food, being curious or informative or otherwise obsessed — blogging, writing, reading, eating — competing subtly (or not) to prove their worth according to some vague gastronomical standards, it’s refreshing to encounter someone — a chef, no less — who just doesn’t want to be bothered. I don’t think I realized how frustrating all that self-indulgence and self-promotion can be, until spending a bit of time with someone so clearly uninterested in participating.

Sam gave me samples and let me take pictures, but he clearly didn’t want to exert any effort to leave a good impression. Despite the fact that there was only one table occupied, and they were already eating when I got there, he cut our meeting after about 7 minutes because he was “too busy to talk.”

He serves Megumi Natto simply, but with care: you get three bites, each one balanced with scallions and soy sauce, and that’s it. “It’s natto,” he said, in a tone that further implied “what more do you want?” I asked him about other recipes, other modes of preparation. “There are lots of people doing crazy things with natto,” he said. “You look on the internet for ideas. That’s not for me.” The tempura, the sushi, even the decor in the restaurant seemed to emanate the same message: this is simple, decent Japanese food; nothing more, nothing less.

“I’m trying to come up with ways to make natto more appealing to Americans,” I told him; “different flavor combinations, different techniques.”

“I don’t know what you Americans want,” he said. “For me, natto like this is just right. I don’t want it any other way.” And really I can’t argue with him — it tasted great.

So maybe he does know what some Americans want, after all; anyway, I know I’ll be back for more.

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