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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Where to eat natto?

Ippuku is an izakaya in downtown Berkeley that has quickly garnered a reputation for offering good Japanese food that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in the Bay Area: grilled mochi with braised pork belly and spicy turnip greens, for example, or chicken skewers composed of esoteric cuts (like knee cartilage), served anywhere from rare to raw. They have many standard yakitori dishes, which are quite good, but the menu seems at its best in the realm of the unexpected.

So it’s probably not surprising that they serve our natto, and that they prepare it like nowhere else: roasted over a hot fire, wrapped in a crispy purse of abura-age. (Abura-age is thinly sliced tofu, deep-fried twice to create air pockets that allow it to be stuffed with goodies like natto. Apparently it is an established fact in Japanese folklore that foxes are fond of deep-fried tofu. Who knew?)

Ippuku uses traditional bincho-tan charcoal, which gives a clean, hot, and sustained flame for easy grilling. (Which, parenthetically, is the same charcoal we use in our natto-steaming process). The chef/owner, Christian Geideman, clearly seeks out the best materia prima he can find, and has created the menu with care. The man behind the grill, Chikara, cooks with a steady hand and an eye for detail. The result is that the flavors, the textures, and the presentation of the various dishes are often striking – even surprising – to all but the most seasoned of izakaya connoisseurs.
A little bit of background: Christian grew up in the Bay Area, and he’s been cooking since he was fifteen. His culinary passions were first awakened when he began working in pan-Asian noodles houses, which eventually led him to research the finer points of udon and soba in Japan. While in Tokyo, however, things shifted. He began spending all his free time at a small yakitori, where he befriended the chef and cooked a few times; he was captivated by the allure of flame-roasted food. So he returned to the States and started saving up for his own yakitori (and izakaya); some years later, Ippuku is the result.

Like most things on the menu, the natto with abura-age is a discovery Christian made in Japan. The process is simple: natto is mixed with diced scallions and stuffed in the pouch of tofu, which is skewered on a stick and grilled briefly at high heat on all sides. The results are delicious: the natto is just warmed; creamy, rich, and offset pleasantly by the charred crispy tofu. It is appealing not only for its taste and texture, but also because (for most of us at least) it really can’t be reproduced at home.

I asked Christian how he eats natto outside of the restaurant, and says he usually goes the simplest, most traditional route: a little soy sauce or spicy mustard mixed in, some diced scallions on top, all served with a bowl of warm rice. “It’s my go-to meal,” he said.

Chikara also tends toward the simpler, more traditional preparations. Soy sauce, mustard, rice…though sometimes he’ll add a little flaked nori, or an egg yolk; “I love it. I eat it almost any way,” He said. “It’s very healthy.”

Unfortunately, though, Chikara’s wife can’t stand the stuff. “Every time I eat it, she asks me, ‘What is that smell?’ ” She often leaves the room. “Some people just don’t like it,” he said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “I can’t understand.”

I asked him if he could think of any ways to prepare natto that might appeal to a conventional Western palate; he thought for a minute, then gave the standard answer: “I don’t know; either you like it or you don’t. It’s difficult to change that.”

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How to eat natto?

In Japan, conventional wisdom is that there are two kinds of people: those who love natto, and those who hate it. These feelings aren’t inherited, they aren’t regional, they don’t correlate to age or sex or any other general characteristics of the population, but still, they run very deep, and rarely change; in Japan, at least, people’s opinions about natto seem to be as inexplicable as they are unwavering. (And here is a nice visual illustration of the point, if you’re interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_dOwq8wJmk&feature=related).

In the States things seem to be a little bit different. Obviously, the vast majority of Americans have never tried natto; but even disregarding them, there still seems to be more variety than just the staunch lovers and haters in this country. There seem to be many of us who only like it in certain ways — sweet, or cooked, or mixed with vinegar to cut the stickiness, for example — and many of us who are ambivalent, unsure, intrigued, or otherwise searching for the best way to enjoy natto. Given this state of affairs, I thought I’d share some of my favorite ways to eat natto and hopefully spur some creativity in your own kitchen.

One of my favorite ways to eat natto is as part of a salad: shredded root vegetables and seaweed soaked in rice vinegar, maybe with mirin and sesame oil, allowed to marinate about half an hour. What you see here is daikon, carrot, beet, and shredded konbu (aka kelp). Wakame, dulse, and nori are nice too. Once the seaweed is rehydrated, right before eating, I stir the salad into the gooey natto matrix and spread it out on a plate, so it isn’t all bound up in one big ball. I find it light and refreshing, and more interesting than your typical seaweed salad.

If I’m eating natto for breakfast, I usually just have it over brown rice, maybe with a bit of scallion chopped up on top, which is probably the most common way to eat natto in Japan. But sometimes I don’t think of the natto until I’ve already started making something else; eggs and toast, for example. I love the runny yolks of a sunnyside-up egg, and one day I realized that some stringy natto on the toast, with the egg on top just makes the gooey-ness that much better.

If you do think of it, trying taking your natto out of the fridge the night before you eat it, and leave it uncovered at room temp. This will give the bacillus plenty of time to wake up from its dormant state, making it stickier, tastier, and more nutritious by the time it gets to your mouth.

Along similar lines, I sometimes stir a bit of honey into the natto to increase the viscosity, then eat it as-is, or on top of yogurt for extra creaminess. If you mix the honey and natto the night before, the results are even more impressive.

Just the other day I stirred a bit of peanut butter into my natto, to thicken it up, then added a few raw peanuts in as well; the saltiness and crunchiness were interesting complements, and all that fat in the PB made for a satisfying snack.

When I’m having natto as a main part of my lunch or dinner, I like to eat it with fish. It’s pretty common in Japan to eat natto with chunks of raw tuna — maguro natto, it’s called — but mercury scares me, and I can’t really afford anything but canned tuna anyway, so I started eating my natto with canned salmon instead. If you buy it with the bone and skin on, you can get quite a lot of fish for not much money, which is nice. I like to let the fish marinate in a bit of miso first (maybe with some vinegar too), then eat it alongside the natto, or all mixed in together. Simple, clean; powerfood.

And of course you can forgo the fish and just mix natto into your miso soup, which I find goes quite well with a few mushrooms like shiitakes or maitakes, along with a variety of seaweeds.

Or you can go straight for the vinegar. Vinegar does a nice job of balancing out the natto, and muting it a bit — rice vinegar doesn’t add any noticeable flavor, which is sometimes a good thing, but the ume plum vinegar definitely adds something special. A nice balsamic — thick and sweet, aged in wooden casks — somehow mellows and accentuates the natto simultaneously. It sounds impossible, but it’s true, and it’s a very nice effect.

Of course natto doesn’t need to be the center of the meal. It can make a nice accompaniment to something else — like a steak, for example. This was a revelation for me. My brother suggested trying natto with BBQ sauce a few weeks back, and I was skeptical at first, not least because I don’t know any BBQ sauce whose ingredients I really trust. But I tried it anyway, with some stuff my parents used to feed me, and I found it actually works quite well. I basted the meat lightly with the sauce, and also mixed the sauce in with the natto. When the steak was well-seared I took it off the heat and dressed it with the BBQ-natto; the flavors actually melded well together, especially as the heat from the meat made the natto into a rich glaze.

I’m thinking to do a honey-mint-natto mixture next, and have it with some lamb.

These are simple ideas, but easy, and — to my palate at least — tasty. If you’re looking for something a little more involved, an old Iron Chef episode has interesting things to try: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-xVUBlL_U8. Our website also has quite a few recipes posted on it as well.

What are some of your favorite ways to eat natto? When, where, how, and why do you like it best? Please, post away…

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You Need More MK7-type Vitamin K2

Many researchers from many countries have found many reasons why natto is good for your health. It is an extremely nutrient-dense food, full of enzymes, prebiotics, and probiotics; it has anti-bacterial properties, and it is also a uniquely rich source of vitamins that are difficult to find in other foods. For now we’ll focus on one of those vitamins: K2.

Vitamin K was discovered in 1929 by a Danish scientist named Henrik Dam; he isolated a nutrient that was particularly effective at helping chicken (and human) blood coagulate, and named it “K,” after the German Koagulationsvitamin. Since 1929, however, others have differentiated between two distinct types of “K” that occur naturally — K1 and K2 — as well as three types that are synthetically produced: K3, K4, and K5. K1 is available directly to humans through a variety of plant sources; it is important, but easy to get, and so studied with far less rigor than K2.

K2 has been studied extensively, so that it is now recognized to have many distinct sub-types, each named after the chemical designation for K2, menaquinone; hence, each type, 1-9, is commonly known as MK1, MK4, MK7, etc. This is important to understand because the different types of K2 come from different sources and have different effects on your health; when someone refers to vitamin K2 it is important to clarify which version of K2 they are actually talking about.

So, one final technical detail: MK4 and MK7 have both repeatedly been shown to help prevent and treat a wide variety of afflictions that plague Americans: osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, and arthritis. Our bodies can synthesize MK4 from K1, which is easy to get from many plants; MK7, however, is more difficult to come by, and far more effective at battling the aforementioned afflictions.

MK7 appears to be available from two major sources: either you eat animal livers, or, perhaps more appetizingly, you eat the beneficial bacteria of fermented foods such as natto. Amongst the wide spectrum of fermented foods available, natto has consistently proven to have the highest concentration of MK7-type K2 available.

Yay!

Japanese scientists have been studying natto for some time now; as “Western” food gains in popularity, and good health consequently declines (what a surprise), the national government has funded a number of studies to analyze traditional dietary habits and understand exactly why they worked so well for so long. The general idea is to codify ancestral wisdom into specific medical recommendations that will allow their population (and curious foreigners) to stay healthy.

Unfortunately for us, who are probably in need of this information even more urgently than the Japanese, the results of these studies are not always translated into English, and even when they are, their importance is not often recognized widely in this country. But there are a few European and American experts who have turned their attention toward traditional Japanese foods, and the importance of natto is now beginning to be understood outside of Japan.

So, back to MK7-type K2.  How does it work?  Essentially, your body has a difficult time knowing how to process all the calcium it receives. American medical professionals have long recognized the fact that we need vitamin D to absorb the calcium we consume — which is why it’s added to milk — but are just beginning to recognize what the Japanese have known for some time now: we need vitamin K2, and MK4 or MK7 specifically, to tell our bodies how to use all that calcium we absorb with the benefit of vitamin D.

What happens to all that calcium if it isn’t absorbed properly? Instead of going to our bones, it accumulates in arteries and tissues — leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, and arthritis.

This explains why Americans have long been long been plagued by  an apparent “calcium paradox,” in that we, as a society, consume far more calcium than most other populations, but suffer from far more osteoporosis. The fact that our diets are often very low in MK7-type K2 suggests that this isn’t a paradox at all. Rather, the fact that we consume lots of calcium, suffer from osteoporosis, and simultaneously suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, and arthritis, can all be linked to deficiencies in Vitamin K2. Of course this isn’t the only reason for our national health crisis, but it does appear to be an extremely important element in the equation.

Probably the best-known study to confirm these theories was the so-called Rotterdam Study, which tracked almost 5,000 subjects over the course of 7-10 years, to analyze the importance of adequate K2 in good coronary health. The full study, published in the journal of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, is available here: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/134/11/3100.full. Further, The Benefits of Vitamin K2, by Dr. Anthony Payne, provides a good technical overview of how K2 works in our bodies and why we need it.

In response to all this information, quite a few people have gone out to buy MK7 pills to take with their meals. As with most vitamins, however, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that our bodies can actually absorb the K2 that has been synthetically crafted, or isolated in pill-form. We can get much more MK7 when we eat it in it’s whole, natural state, in food such as natto.

This is true not only because we can absorb the MK7 more readily, but also because natto has a wide spectrum of other benefits. For example, natto has a unique enzyme — nattokinase — which helps reduce blood-clotting, thereby countering the coagulating effects of the vitamin K family, and further reducing the risk of heart disease and strokes. We’ll get into that more fully in another post. For now, though, I’ll just say that Dr. Hiroyuki Sumi is a good source for information about the nuances of nattokinase in the English language.

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