How Things Begin (Japan Traditional Foods)

I eat natto (fermented soybeans) once/day. Most of the natto I see in stores is from Japan (soybeans from America) but I found one local source: Japan Traditional Foods, in Sepastopol, California. Like many people I believe traditional diets are far healthier than modern ones. How can such diets, now almost extinct in rich countries, become popular again? To learn more about this, I interviewed the owner of Japan Traditional Foods, Minami Satoh.

How did your company begin?

I started it in 2006. We started to produce product in November 2008. So far natto is our only product. I went to business school at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a private business school in Arizona, and graduated in 1983. After that, I worked for DuPont in Japan, but I wanted to work in the US. At DuPont, I did marketing of Teflon and Silverstone (a sister brand of Teflon). Then I worked for my father’s company selling wholesale steel pipe and tubes. I was successful but felt it was boring. I thought food would be more interesting. I acquired a small natto-making company (Yaguchi Foods) in Japan in 2004 or 2005. The owner had died. His relatives sold it to me.

In 2004, I came to America to meet Malcolm Clark. He’s the great-grandson of Dr. Clark, who is very famous in Japan. Malcolm Clark was responsible for introducing shitake mushrooms to America. He owns Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol and lives in Occidental. Natto is an unusual food, like shitake mushrooms. I thought he could give me good advice about how to start making natto or other possibilities. That’s why the company is in Sebastopol. When I met Clark, he was thinking of retiring. I bought a stake in Gourmet Mushrooms; now Gourmet Mushrooms helps Japan Traditional Foods sell natto. I moved here in June 2008 to manage this company.

Why natto?

Americans already eat tofu, soy sauce, miso, edaname, and soy milk — but no natto. Natto is more nutritious than the other forms of soy that we currently eat. It’s more nutritious because of fermentation. It has more vitamins. A enzyme found in natto called nattokinase dissolves blood clots. In Japan natto is a traditional health food. It is usually eaten at breakfast.

How is natto made?

You boil the soybeans in a steam basket. Spray with bascillus. Put the soybeans in a paper cup. Put the cups in a fermentation container for 20-24 hours. Take them out and put in packages. Then give to the distributor. If you ferment more than 20 hours, natto bascillus start to eat themselves, which produces ammonia. Most companies stop fermenting at that point to avoid ammonia. If fermented longer, it may smell of ammonia. Japanese accept this, but Americans may not.

How big is Japan Traditional Foods?

One person plus myself. I hired someone from my natto company in Japan. He makes artisanal natto. He handcrafts it.. We put it in the paper cups by hand.

How did you get distribution?

It wasn’t hard. There are two distributors, one for Los Angeles, the other for San Francisco. They specialize in Japanese markets. Now it’s in close to 30 stores, including Korean and Chinese stores. The Los Angeles distributor wanted to sell his stuff in New York but the shipping costs would have been too high. This summer we will start going to farmer’s markets. We’ll have a  booth there to sell and sample. The goal is to educate and share recipes. We’ll be at the San Rafael Sunday market and the Ferry Building Tuesday lunchtime market. It’s a kind of test. We’re talking to distributors about getting the product into non-Japanese grocery stores, such as  Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. From the farmer’s markets we hope to get feedback to improve the packaging, size, and recipes. We want to find the best ways to make the Western market receptive to natto. For example, we can sample it in different ways. In Japan, the most popular way to eat it is over rice with finely chopped green onions, often at breakfast. I’ve come up with many different recipes: with rice or bagel or lettuce or crackers. With different sauces and toppings.

What were the hard parts?

It was difficult to find a good temperature control system here; I had to import it from Japan. I also needed a big steam cooker, which I had to import. This was hard because it is prohibited to export them from Japan to other countries.

Your promotional leaflet says “stir natto more than twenty times” before eating it. Why?

We do not have any valid research on this. But somebody says stirring natto creates the “Fifth Taste” we call “umami.” Somebody else said that it gets the natto bacillus awake again with oxygen because the bacillus was sleeping in the refrigerator.

14 Replies to “How Things Begin (Japan Traditional Foods)”

  1. I’m absolutely fascinated by your theories on fermented food, Seth. Intinctively they feel right to me too so last week i bought some Miso and Sauerkraut. To my suprise, I’m really enjoying the Umami-ness of Miso.

    Once conern I have is buying the right stuff with all its fermented-goodness intact. For example, in the UK it’s actually easier to buy non-fermented Sauerkraut, that uses vinegar, than fermented-Sauerkraut. Often, unless a product uses the word ‘fermented’ on the label you might be getting the wrong stuff.

    Likewise with Natto. In the UK it seems much easier to buy dried Natto snacks (eg: Any idea if the process of ‘drying’ a product kills the bacteria?

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks, Joe. Yeah, drying a product probably kills the bacteria. I think dead bacteria are probably helpful too — the immune system can’t distinguish live from dead — but the drying process may also cause the bacteria to crumble into tiny bits which the immune system wouldn’t notice. Certainly dead bacteria can’t help your digestion.

  3. I’ve had the same reaction as Joe’s “instinctively feel right” regarding the fermented food benefits. About a year ago I hadn’t had any yogurt or fermented food for several years and happened to try some non-sugary plain yogurt from a local producer whose label promises lots of live bacteria. I suddenly craved yogurt and ate a jar a week for several months. But then I started getting a rash (I suspect due to the diary in the yogurt) and stopped eating it (and the rash did go away). When you posted about Kombucha and other fermented foods I was reminded of my craving for yogurt.

    With Omega-3s you provided a number of effects that you noticed (e.g. gum health, improved balance, improved performance on certain tests, longer sleep if taken before bed). I’m surprised that you haven’t listed anything similar for fermented food (or perhaps I didn’t notice it). Some of these I could duplicate.

    I’ve been drinking 16 oz of Kombucha most days for the past two weeks or so and also made some miso soup and have continued to eat soy yogurt.
    I can say that my digestive system seems to be calmer than it’s ever been before. Also drinking a bottle of Kombucha instead of breakfast satisfies any hunger even though the Kombucha has only 30 calories. But generally, I don’t quantify enough of my daily life to notice effects with the accuracy and confidence that you can. When I read about the effects of Kombucha, the claims are so sweeping that they’re implausible. Have you noticed any short-term effects or do you have ideas of things that could be measured before and after starting a high fermented food diet?


  4. @Seth

    Injection of live but not dead bacteria induces a wave of IL-12 and subsequently, IFN-γ production. Surprisingly, in vitro, both live and dead bacteria elicit IL-12 from macrophages. Better understanding of how macrophages distinguish live from dead bacteria would help explain this difference and possibly bypass the need for live vaccines against intracellular bacteria.”

    Live meningococcal bacteria were found to be poorly phagocytosed by dendritic cells compared to killed bacteria and the special messenger molecules (cytokines) produced by dendritic cells in response to live and dead bacteria were quite different. Unexpectedly, the live bacteria stimulated more IL12 required for a good immune response and less IL10, a cytokine thought to inhibit the immune response. This finding is important for developing dead whole bacteria vaccines which are made using the whole bacterium rather than purified components of it, and for understanding how live bacteria in the host affect the immune response.

  5. @Patrik,

    Blog comments are singularly ill-adapted for discussing complex topics. It may be better if you email Seth directly regarding specific topics. I’ve noticed plenty of bloggers often only reply to the easiest and most lowest-common-denominator comments. It’s a time-management and resource issue.

    I have yet to find a platform for such discussions that beats email.

    I do agree with many of your points and would like to see them addressed, but I know both you and Seth will have difficulties digging even one more level deeper on these concepts if you try to do it via blog comments.

  6. Thanks for responding, Seth. I know natto itself is gluten-free but I tried to buy a container of natto recently, after hearing about it for the first time, and every different brand I picked up had wheat listed as an ingredient in the soy sauce. Those of us who are gluten intolerant can’t handle even a little wheat in soy sauce. I wonder if natto with gluten free soy sauce is out there somewhere….
    thanks again

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