Is Dirtier Food the Key to a Cleaner Diet?

Meet natto, the next great superfood.

Kale’s 15 minutes of fame may be waning: A superfood that you've probably never tasted before is about to join the shortlist of must-eat ingredients, and here's the dirt on why it's becoming the new buzzword.

What's the ingredient? Natto, fermented soybeans found most often in Japanese cuisine. Those soybeans have an earthy flavor and a gooey texture, and they contain soil bacteria. But before you balk, read on.

“Food used to be fresh and dirty. We lived surrounded by nature,” Dr. Ann Yonetani, a microbiologist who teaches food science, told The New York Timesin a recent article titled "Are You Ready to Eat Your Natto?" “Nowadays, we are exposed to too little microbial diversity,” Yonetani added, noting that each tablespoon of the finished natto product contains a billion of the healthful soil bacteria Bacillus subtilis, a count that is “orders of magnitude greater than what you would find in a typical probiotic food.”

Why should you make sure you're adding soil bacteria or other "dirty" foods to your diet? "Fermented foods like natto and sauerkraut are made with the help of beneficial bacteria that can help keep you regular, counter overgrowth of harmful bacteria and even potentially impact anxiety and weight loss," Laura Cipullo RD tells The Feast.

Natto has even more benefits for your health, not to mention your palate, once you get used to the rich, fermented taste and somewhat slimy texture. Los Angeles-based chef Niki Nakayama, who owns the famed kaiseki restaurant n/naka, told The Feast that she keeps natto in her fridge because although natto soybeans are an acquired taste, they're "delicious once you get used to them." In New York City, the Japanese restaurant Ootoya serves natto as a side dish or rice topping, part of a menu that specializes in authentic, home-style healthy meals traditionally found in Japanese homes.

"We import organic natto from Japan and serve them with scallion and our housemade sauce, which is made mainly with dashi, soy sauce and mirin,” Tomonori Takada, the President of Ootoya America, tells The Feast.

“Natto is an essential part of Japanese home meals, especially from the nutritional point of view," Takada adds. "It is rich in protein, and Vitamin K2, Vitamin E, Vitamin B2 and also contains a unique enzyme called Nattokinase. [Nattokinase helps your body prevent blood clots.] Natto is an important ingredient to supplement these nutrients that tend to be missing in a meal. It has been loved by the Japanese people for years, and these fermented foods make Japanese meals some of the healthiest in the world."

Ready to give natto a try? It has yet to catch on big-time in restaurants stateside (remember when you couldn't find a kale salad anywhere, and weren't even looking?). But you can make it in your own kitchen for now, or try it in your favorite dishes, from soba noodles to veggie burgers to fried rice.

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