Life Cycles

In case you missed reading our last blog post (Gaga for Goo), we recently traveled to Boston to geek out and work with scientist friends at Harvard Medical School to investigate the probiotic nature of our natto. Among the many people we have to thank (below, from left to right): David Rudner/ Dana Boyd & Joe Davis with Ann Yonetani.

Dr. David Rudner and his lab study Bacillus subtilis (the same bacterial species which ferments natto) because of the interesting biology of its life cycle. They are investigating how these bacteria undergo sporulation, a developmental program which allows them to enter a dormant state in the form of a seed-like spore

Certain species of primitive plants, protozoa, algae, fungi and bacteria can form spores as part of their natural life cycle. Spores are "a unit of asexual reproduction…adapted for dispersal and survival, often for long periods of time, in unfavorable conditions." (2)

Great cartoon/microscopy images of how Bacillus subtilis undergoes the process of  sporulation, transitioning from a normally growing bacterial cell (left) through stages of creating a small separate intracellular compartment (second from left) which then becomes engulfed inside the larger cell (third from left), eventually maturing and being released from the dead cell (right) as a dormant and highly indestructible SPORE.  Image by David Rudner, HMS (1)

Great cartoon/microscopy images of how Bacillus subtilis undergoes the process of  sporulation, transitioning from a normally growing bacterial cell (left) through stages of creating a small separate intracellular compartment (second from left) which then becomes engulfed inside the larger cell (third from left), eventually maturing and being released from the dead cell (right) as a dormant and highly indestructible SPORE.  Image by David Rudner, HMS (1)

NYrture New York Natto is created by inoculating hot, pressure-steamed, GMO-free, whole soybeans with spores of Bacillus subtilis (var. natto). Triggered by the heat and rich source of nutrients the beans provide, these spores "wake up" or germinate and begin re-entering a growing phase of their life cycle.   In David's lab, we were able to use tools of scientific inquiry to observe and measure the probiotic bacteria living inside our natto.

Spores don't really look like they do in the video game SPORE (above, left). Rather, Bacillus subtilis spores typically look like this (right); round structures about 1um in diameter, viewed above by confocal microscopy with a fluorescent membrane-staining dye outlining the spore edges (3). We scooped up some NYrture New York Natto "goo", slapped it on glass slides and had a look….

Screenshot from confocal microscope (phase/DAPI stain) of a direct sample from our natto. Not pretty, but a field of thousands of both dead (lighter) and living (dark with halos) Bacillus subtilis cells in our food. Biologists may notice that living cells of different lengths are seen, indicating that these cells are at various stages of their vegetative life cycle, actively growing & dividing.

Screenshot from confocal microscope (phase/DAPI stain) of a direct sample from our natto. Not pretty, but a field of thousands of both dead (lighter) and living (dark with halos) Bacillus subtilis cells in our food. Biologists may notice that living cells of different lengths are seen, indicating that these cells are at various stages of their vegetative life cycle, actively growing & dividing.

We were super excited to see so very many live Bacillus subtilis both actively growing and undergoing sporulation inside our food! This is significant because the vast majority of bacteria (beneficial or not) taken in through food are destroyed during (food storage and) digestion by the extremely acidic stomach environment and/or anaerobic conditions in the gut.  This calls into serious question the actual utility of most probiotic foods/products out there.

But further, under the microscope it looked like at least some of these living cells in our natto were also undergoing sporulation! This was intriguing because if our natto also contains fresh spores (which are nearly indestructible and therefore resistant to digestive assault), these spores are certain to be able to reach the gut where they can germinate and effectively colonize and grow, contributing to human gut health! So, here's what we did to find out...

This (above) petri plate shows a series of serial dilutions of natto "goo" taken directly from a jar of month-old NYrture New York Natto spotted in dots across a line on the agar media near the top edge of the dish; then the plate was held on its side to allow each dilution sample spot of liquid to drip by gravity downwards to form straight lines streaking down the agar surface before being let to grow overnight in a warm incubator. Starting from the left, a 1:1 dilution of natto "goo", followed by serial 10x dilutions (10x, 100x, 1000x, etc…) of the first, left-hand sample.  By diluting the sample down enough orders of magnitude, one can pretty accurately estimate the number of individual cells present in the original sample from the number of colonies (visible spots of cells) that appear the next day.  From this, Alex Meeske in the Rudner lab, gave us an approximation of ~15 million live Bacillus subtilis cells in each milliliter of NYrture natto "goo"(4).  

But now we wanted to know IF and HOW MANY of these cells/colonies came from SPORES also present in the natto "goo"? Here, we can take advantage of the fact that spores are so hardy and resistant to heat by boiling each of the samples for twenty minutes!  No bacterial cells can survive this hot tub, but spores can! So what do we see if we plate the boiled, heat-killed samples in the same manner as above?

We saw that some Bacillus subtilis cells DID GROW from spores present in the boiled, heat-killed samples!  By comparing the number of colonies in this streak (coming from the most concentrated left sample) to those on the previous (unheated samples) plate, we see that it is close to that of the third (100x) dilution. Therefore, we can guestimate that ~1% of the Bacillus subtilis growing from our natto are derived from spores in the food. This translates to about 1.5 million spores per milliliter of natto "goo"! (4)

Summary: We found that our NYrture natto contained at least ~15 million live Bacillus subtilis bacteria and ~1.5 million viable Bacillus subtilis spores per milliliter.  In eating terms, a generous serving of 50mls contains 750 million cells and 75 million viable spores of probiotic bacteria!  Noting that these results came from a month-old jar of our natto, the numbers may be even higher for a fresher batch! Truly, we could not be more pleased with these results, and we're certain that our fresh natto contains orders of magnitude more viable probiotic bacteria than any other (frozen) natto available here! 

References: (1)  http://micro.med.harvard.edu/faculty/rudnergraphic-lg.jpg  (2) Wikipedia [spore]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spore. (3) Cowan, A. E. et al. PNAS.101:20, 7733-8.  (4) personal communication from Alex Meeske, David Rudner lab, Harvard Medical School.

Polyamorous for Polyamines

New micronutrients are being discovered all the time, and "good nutrition" is based on so much more than merely what is listed on a food label. Natto is rich in yet another micronutrient contributing to its “superfood” status; polyamines. Polyamines are organic compounds essential for cell growth. Their exact function is unknown, but new research links high levels of polyamines with anti-aging effects! Amazingly, polyamines can be absorbed directly from the food we eat (1), like natto.

Spermidine & spermine are well studied polyamines found in natto with many potential health benefits.

Spermidine & spermine are well studied polyamines found in natto with many potential health benefits.

High concentrations of polyamines are found in soybeans. Polyamines are also increased by fermentation….hence natto, fermented soybeans, may be the perfect whole food for providing these nutrients.

Polyamines are thought to be anti-inflammatory compounds. One theory of aging holds that our body's response to chronic inflammation is what "ages" us. Thus, decreasing the amount of inflammation in the body may delay and minimize the aging effects of time. One molecule Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) which is increased in certain cancers, inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune conditions, is inhibited by two polyamines (spermine and spermidine) by inhibiting TNF from stimulated immune system cells (2). Therefore dietary polyamine intake may decrease inflammation in the body.

We don't like to use this term, but polyamines may have "anti-aging," properties by preserving organ health and function. For example, in one experimental study in which mice were fed a polyamine rich diet lived longer and had fewer markers of aging (hardening and thickening of the kidney tubules) than did mice who were polyamine deprived. In other words, polyamine intake seemed to delay the progression of aging (3).

Mary Badon, MD MBA and new partner here at NYrture New York Natto, who co-authored this blog post.

Mary Badon, MD MBA and new partner here at NYrture New York Natto, who co-authored this blog post.

References: (1) J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009 Aug;55(4):361-6. Long-term oral polyamine intake increases blood polyamine concentrations. Soda K1, Kano Y, Sakuragi M, Takao K, Lefor A, Konishi F. 2. J Exp Med. 1997 May 19;185(10):1759-68. (2) Spermine inhibits proinflammatory cytokine synthesis in human mononuclear cells: a counterregulatory mechanism that restrains the immune response. Zhang M1, Caragine T, Wang H, Cohen PS, Botchkina G, Soda K, Bianchi M, Ulrich P, Cerami A, Sherry B, Tracey KJ. 3. Exp Gerontol. 2009 Nov;44(11):727-32. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2009.08.013. Epub 2009 Sep 6. (3) Polyamine-rich food decreases age-associated pathology and mortality in aged mice. Soda K, Dobashi Y, Kano Y, Tsujinaka S, Konishi F. (4) Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 1997 Sep;61(9):1582-4. Polyamine content of ordinary foodstuffs and various fermented foods. Okamoto A1, Sugi E, Koizumi Y, Yanagida F, Udaka S.


NYrture New York Natto's Spiral

NYrture's logo is a derivative of a mathematical function known as a Fermat's spiral, often found in nature.

The Fermat (or parabolic) spiral is a well-studied geometric shape/function described by the mathematical equation: r2 = a2θ[1; sorry, 2's here meant to be superscripted]. Anyway, the really cool thing about this spiral is that it is such a ubiquitous pattern in the natural world, particularly in the shape of plants and flowers as shown above.

"In disc phyllotaxis, as in the sunflower and daisy, the mesh of spirals occurs in Fibonacci numbers because divergence (angle of succession in a single spiral arrangement) approaches the golden ratio. The shape of the spirals depends on the growth of the elements generated sequentially... The angle 137.508° is the golden angle which is approximated by ratios of Fibonacci numbers.", to quote directly from Wikipedia, whose links here are useful to explain this better than I could [2].

Superimposing two reflected versions of Fermat's spiral (left) produces this beautiful and somehow familiar-feeling shape (right). [3]

Superimposing two reflected versions of Fermat's spiral (left) produces this beautiful and somehow familiar-feeling shape (right). [3]

I love the ying-yang center of this shape and the lack of closure in the circle formed around it, spinning indefinitely outwards. The dual nature of the shape reflects the fact that NYrture New York Natto is created from only TWO simple ingredients: GMO-free soybean and Bacillus subtilis bacteria.

Also, the slightly irregularly shaped dots which form our spiral logo are meant to represent both the soybeans and bacteria which make up NYrture New York Natto.

References: (1) http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Curves/Fermats.html (2) Wikipedia [Fermat Spiral] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermat%27s_spiral (3) http://mathworld.wolfram.com/FermatsSpiral.html

 

 

NYrture New York Natto's Home

Starting a new food business from scratch is a daunting task for anyone. Thankfully, a growing phenomenon of cooperative kitchen sharing is making it a bit easier for many start-ups like NYrture.  We are very lucky to be part of one such community at the Organic Food Incubator, located in Long Island City, Queens.

A factory tour of the Organic Food Incubator in Long Island City, New York. The Organic Food Incubator has housed more than 70 companies since it began three years ago.


The Subtle Beauty of Bacillus Subtilis (Part V)

Thanks to Bacillus subtilis fermentation, natto may be THE most concentrated known food source of Vitamin K2 (1). Vitamin K2 is increasingly being recognized as a critical micronutrient which most people are not getting enough of through our modern eating habits. Vitamin K2 is vital to both bone and cardiovascular health.

Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) is distinct from Vitamin K1 and has additional, different functions & health benefits.

Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) is distinct from Vitamin K1 and has additional, different functions & health benefits.

Most of us appreciate already the importance of calcium in the diet; however, calcium can do as much harm than good if not appropriately transported from food (via the bloodstream) to bones. It is emerging that perhaps the most important function of Vitamin K2 is to help deliver and deposit calcium to right places in the body (skeleton). Lack of Vitamin K2 can lead to accumulation of calcium in blood vessels, (calcification) and therefore, development of heart disease and osteoporosis. A large body of credible in vitro, in vivo, and epidemiological studies support the notion that increasing dietary Vitamin K2 intake is highly beneficial in promoting both heart and bone health (2,3,4).

This video is a bit long but is an excellent, detailed discussion of Vitamin K2's health benefits...

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/06/28/vitamin-k2-health-benefits.aspx?x_cid=youtube Natural health expert and Mercola.com founder Dr. Joseph Mercola and Dr. Dennis Goodman talk about why vitamin K2 is as important as vitamin D.

References: (1) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/vitamin-k-and-natto-what-s-the-connection/ (2) http://chriskresser.com/vitamin-k2-the-missing-nutrient/ (3) Tsukamoto, Y. et al.(2000) Intake of fermented soybean (natto) increases circulating vitamin K2 (menaquinone-7) and gamma-carboxylated osteocalcin concentration in normal individuals. J Bone Miner Metab. 2000;18(4):216-22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10874601. (4) Beulens, JW et al. (2010) The role of menaquinones (vitamin K₂) in human health. Br J Nutr. 2013 Oct;110(8):1357-68.

The Subtle Beauty of Bacillus Subtilis (Part IV)

Yet another gift from Bacillus subtilis found inside natto is a medicinal enzyme called "nattokinase". This protein is made by the bacteria during fermentation of natto and is not found in other soy-based foods (1). Nattokinase is commonly taken as a drug/supplement blood thinner or blood clotting inhibitor as an alternative therapy for cardiovascular disease and stroke prevention (2).

A graphic representation of the protein crystal structure of nattokinase enzyme (5)

A graphic representation of the protein crystal structure of nattokinase enzyme (5)

Nattokinase (for biogeeks, despite its name) is a proteolytic enzyme (serine protease), meaning it functions in breaking down proteins (3). All proteins are made of chains of amino acids, precisely ordered in a genetically programmed sequence. Serine proteases (which themselves are also proteins) are designed to recognize and disassemble certain kinds of target proteins by cleaving them within a particular set sequence of amino acids (containing a serine residue) (4). Nattokinase has been found to target and break down target human proteins involved in blood clotting; thus acting as a natural inhibitor of blood clot formation or "blood thinner".

A view of amyloid protein fibrils (fibers) via atomic force microscopy. Image from Cambridge University PhysBio Research Group (http://www.physbio.group.cam.ac.uk)

A view of amyloid protein fibrils (fibers) via atomic force microscopy. Image from Cambridge University PhysBio Research Group (http://www.physbio.group.cam.ac.uk)

Incredibly, nattokinase's potential usefulness doesn't stop there. Many scientists from around the world have also seen that nattokinase may also be effective at inhibiting more kinds of unwanted protein aggregations (in addition to blot clot formation) within the human body. For example, Alzheimer's disease is well known to be associated with the abnormal accumulation of amyloid protein fibers and plaques in the brain. Nattokinase has been shown to be capable of breaking down these amyloid fibrils! (5)

Nattokinase is actually being studied as a potential drug therapy for multiple human amyloid disorders involving pathogenic protein fiber formation including: Alzheimer's (beta-amyloid fibrils), diabetes (insulin fibers) and prion diseases (prion peptide polymers) (2).

Amazing to find Nattokinase pills on the shelf at Whole Foods (pictured here) as well as most health food stores--not one but multiple brands! But no natto?!

Amazing to find Nattokinase pills on the shelf at Whole Foods (pictured here) as well as most health food stores--not one but multiple brands! But no natto?!

Nattokinase enzyme can be extracted from natto or now made by bacteria alone, and is commonly sold in pill form as shown above at Whole Foods. It's not cheap and, like probiotic supplements, it's unlikely that this shelf-stable, isolated form of nattokinase is as active as the protein coming from live Bacillus in natto food. Why, oh why not just eat fresh, delicious, nutritious and less expensive natto?

References: (1) Fujita, M.; Nomura, K.; Hong, K.; Ito, Y.; Asada, A.; Nishimuro, S. (1993). "Purification and Characterization of a Strong Fibrinolytic Enzyme (Nattokinase) in the Vegetable Cheese Natto, a Popular Soybean Fermented Food in Japan". Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 197 (3): 1340–1347. doi:10.1006/bbrc.1993.2624PMID  (2) Wikipedia [Nattokinase] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nattokinase (3) Wikipedia [serine protease]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serine_protease (4) Yanagisawa, Y.; Chatake, T.; Chiba-Kamoshida, K.; Naito, S.; Ohsugi, T.; Sumi, H.; Yasuda, I.; Morimoto, Y. (2010). "Purification, crystallization and preliminary X-ray diffraction experiment of nattokinase fromBacillus subtilis natto"Acta Crystallographica Section F Structural Biology and Crystallization Communications 66 (12): 1670–1673. (5) Hs,u R.L. et al. (2009).Amyloid-degrading ability of nattokinase from Bacillus subtilis natto. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Jan 28;57(2):503-8. doi: 10.1021/jf803072r.

 

 

The Subtle Beauty of Bacillus Subtilis (Part III)

first_aid_600x450.jpg

Natto is not the first product made by Bacillus subtilis to provide benefit to human health. This bacteria is also the source of one of our oldest and widely used antibiotics, bacitracin.

An interesting story: The name of the antibiotic "bacitracin" is derived from a combination of (a) its biological source (Bacillus subtilis) and (b) the person in whom it was found (M. Tracy).

This useful drug was first discovered and isolated from a hospital culture derived from an abscessing leg wound of a young girl named Margaret Tracy back in the 1940's. In trying to diagnose and treat her infected leg, doctors realized that one component from the wound had a strong protective, antibiotic effect---this turned out to be coming from Bacillus subtilis that was present in the wound. When doctors and scientists looked further, they found this antibiotic activity was due to a natural chemical bio-product which they then named bacitracin.

Here is the original scientific article on bacitracin's discovery from 1945 (3)!

References: (1) Dougherty, T. (2012) Antibiotic Discovery and Development: Volume I. Springer Publishing. (2) Wikipedia {bacitracin]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacitracin (3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC518064/pdf/jbacter00667-0106.pdf (4) Jonathan Dworkin, PhD. personal communication.

Bacitracin is one of the most common antibiotics in first aid over-the-counter topical antibiotic cremes, antibiotic-containing bandages, and opthalmic antibiotic ointments (to treat pink eye).

Bacitracin is one of the most common antibiotics in first aid over-the-counter topical antibiotic cremes, antibiotic-containing bandages, and opthalmic antibiotic ointments (to treat pink eye).

Bacitracin is a natural antibiotic molecule produced only by Bacillus subtilis bacteria. Most of our best antibiotic drugs are, in fact, substances made by microorganisms as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from other threatening species of microbes. Bacitracin works by interfering with synthesis of the essential protective cell wall, thus crippling many other (than itself) bacterial species (1, 4).

Demonstrating antibiotic activity. A petri dish culture of bacteria (brown haze) growing on agar media topped with small white discs which are filter papers impregnated with samples of other bacterial species or purified small molecule products. Antibiotic activity is shown by the appearance of a "halo" of no bacterial growth around the source of "killing activity". The size/diameter of the "zone of death" indicates strength of activity.

Demonstrating antibiotic activity. A petri dish culture of bacteria (brown haze) growing on agar media topped with small white discs which are filter papers impregnated with samples of other bacterial species or purified small molecule products. Antibiotic activity is shown by the appearance of a "halo" of no bacterial growth around the source of "killing activity". The size/diameter of the "zone of death" indicates strength of activity.

The Subtle Beauty of Bacillus Subtilis (Part I)

In my efforts to improve and scale up my natto making process, I found I had many questions about the biology of my magical ingredient and probiotic partners in this venture, Bacillus subtilis (B. subtilis).

As a geek at heart, I find that obstacles are often overcome by understanding more about the science underlying what I am doing. So I went to consult Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, a professor and microbiologist at Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights. Our chat provided many interesting and useful insights into how these bacteria live, and I want to share some of them with you.

Dr. Jonathan Dworkin sampling some New York Natto

Dr. Jonathan Dworkin sampling some New York Natto

Jonathan's lab and many others around the world have spent years dissecting the nature of signals and events that allow B. subtilis (and other spore-forming bacteria) to emerge from a state of dormancy to reinitiate growth and reproduction (1,2). This is as close as biology (currently) comes to resurrection from death.

The life of B. subtilis alternates between cycles of active (vegetative) growth and sporulation/dormancy followed by re-entry into active growth. Spores shown here in red (5).

The life of B. subtilis alternates between cycles of active (vegetative) growth and sporulation/dormancy followed by re-entry into active growth. Spores shown here in red (5).

B. subtilis is among a specialized group of microorganisms which can undergo a process called sporulation, which means that they can enter into a kind of non-living hibernation state by transforming into an inert, highly indestructible structure called a spore. Sporulation occurs as a protective response to nutrient limitation and probably other yet unidentified environmental stresses (2).

Spores are incredibly resistant to extreme temperatures, desiccation, radiation & chemical insults and can "survive" for indefinite periods of time. When environmental conditions become favorable again, spores can miraculously emerge from this dormant state and "come back to life" (2,3).

I've been told that my natto set-up at OFI bears much resemblance to a lab bench; the past has a funny way of following one.

I've been told that my natto set-up at OFI bears much resemblance to a lab bench; the past has a funny way of following one.

New York Natto is made by inoculating steamed soybeans with B. subtilis in spore form. Biologically, the critical step in creating the natto is in germinating or "waking up" the spores to begin living, growing and nourishing themselves on nutrients provided by the soybeans. Exposing spores to a pulse of high heat is believed by many scientists in the field to promote spore germination (2), and this is exactly what happens when spores are rapidly mixed with steaming hot soybeans during natto preparation.

Louis Pasteur (1822-95), great French microbiologist whose discoveries led to the germ theory of disease, vaccination, and pasteurization (4).

Louis Pasteur (1822-95), great French microbiologist whose discoveries led to the germ theory of disease, vaccination, and pasteurization (4).

Most non-sporulating microbes are killed by extreme temperatures. This is the basis of sterilization techniques like pasteurization which use the heat of boiling/steaming water to eliminate microbial contamination.

Nature fortuitously allows B. subtilis spores not only to survive, but thrive in response to boiling water temperature, so natto beans are effectively sterilized and simultaneously seeded only with viable B. subtilis. A brilliant marriage of biology and food safety.

References: Dworkin lab website- http://www.microbiology.columbia.edu/faculty/dworkin.html (2) personal communication from Jonathan Dworkin, PhD (3) Wikipedia [sporulation in Bacillus subtilis] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sporulation_in_Bacillus_subtilis (4) Wikipedia [Louis Pasteur] (5) http://www.devbio.biology.gatech.edu/?page_id=15.

 

Natto food family around the globe (Part III)

Native to the savannas of western and central Africa, the locust bean (néré) tree is a highly prized natural resource. Locust bean seeds produced by these trees are an important, nutrient-rich food source for people from Senegal to Uganda (1). 

African locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa)

African locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa)

Locust bean pods, containing both edible pulp and seeds, are highly nutritious. The pulp is sweet (carbohydrate-rich) and can be consumed directly from the plant; the seeds are even more valuable, as a concentrated source of protein, fat, calcium and B vitamins but are usually eaten in fermented form (2,3).

Locust bean pods whole and shelled

Locust bean pods whole and shelled

Locust bean seeds are prepared for consumption by boiling and fermenting (wrapped in leaves providing Bacillus subtilis and other bacterial species) into a popular food known most commonly as dawadawa (in Hausa-based languages of Ghana, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire,Togo, Benin & Niger)(5). Like natto, fermented dawadawa has a pungent odor and is used (like Korean doenjang) as a condiment or stew ingredient (5).

Dawadawa stew with goat meat in Nigeria

Dawadawa stew with goat meat in Nigeria

In other African languages/countries, dawadawa has many alternative names: iru (Yoruba), sambala (Mandig/Burkina Faso), oji (Pulaar), kinda (Sierra Leone) or netetou (Wolof) (4)

Balls of dawadawa (Burkina Faso) abed unfermented locust bean seeds (4)

Balls of dawadawa (Burkina Faso) abed unfermented locust bean seeds (4)

What does all this have to do with natto? In many areas, dawadawa is increasingly being made from soybeans. Soybeans are replacing néré seeds in traditional dawadawa because of shortages in locust beans along with mounting cultivation of soybeans in Africa (5,6). Naturally, soy-based preparation of dawadawa results in a food even more similar in composition and microbiology to natto than the traditional locust bean-based version (3,5).

Soy dawadawa preparation in Ghana

Soy dawadawa preparation in Ghana

How amazing that such diverse and distant cultures discovered independently that fermenting cooked soy (and other legumes) with leaf-borne Bacillus subtilis (and other bacteria) produces a pungently delicious and highly nutritious food!

References: (1) http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/the-locust-bean-an-answer-to-africa’s-greatest-needs-in-one-tree/ (2) Wikipedia [Parkia biglobosa]:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkia_biglobosa (3) Ray, R.C. and Montet, D. (2015) Microorganisms and Fermentation of Traditional Foods. CRC Press. (4) Wikipedia [Sumbala]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumbala (5) Tamang, J.P. and Kailasapathy.(2010) Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World. CRC Press. (6) http://foramfera.com/index.php/market-research-reports/item/652-soy-dawadawa-production-from-soya-beans-seed-the-feasibility-report 

Natto food family around the globe (Part II)

When an idea arises independently again and again in different cultures around the world, it may be a good one. In the Himalayas, a region including Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and northern India is home to  traditional unsalted fermented soybean foods resembling natto.

nepal_map.gif

The most widespread natto-like food in the Himalayas is known as kinema, a cultural staple food of non-Brahmin Hindus, Lepchas and Bhutias. Kinema is believed to have originated in eastern Nepal some time during the Kirat (600BC - 100AD) dynasty (1). Kinema is made by wrapping lightly crushed boiled soybeans in local fern leaves inside a bamboo basket (both plant materials providing a source of Bacillus subtilis bacteria) to ferment above a warm oven for 1-3 days (2).

Nepali woman cooking soybeans to make kinema

Nepali woman cooking soybeans to make kinema

I was fascinated to learn about kinema and wanted to know how similar it is to natto. So far, I haven't been able to find kinema for sale in New York, so I resorted to second hand testing.

Maya: "kinema=natto"

Maya: "kinema=natto"

I asked my friend Maya, who is from Nepal and ate kinema regularly there, to try my natto and tell me how it compares to the kinema she remembers. Right away, she said that it looked and smelled like kinema, but I waited for her to cook and taste it at home. A week later, I was happy to hear that she had enjoyed the natto and that it had been "just same like kinema, same food "!

Nepali Kinema

Nepali Kinema

Unlike natto, kinema is usually fried with salt, chilies, onion and tomato before eating with rice (2).  Most likely, the tradition of frying kinema in oil before consumption evolved as a safety precaution in a culture/time that lacked refrigeration.

In culturally/linguistically diverse India, variations of kinema are known by many different regional names (hawaijar in Manipur, tungrymbai in Meghalaya, bekang in Mizoram, aakhone in Nagaland, and peruyaan in Arunachal Pradesh). Many of these are made into curries or fried like kinema, but in some regions they are also commonly eaten uncooked as a side dish with rice like natto (1,3).

Indian hawaijar fermented in leaf

Indian hawaijar fermented in leaf

References: (1) Tamang, J.P. and Kailasapathy, K. (2010) Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World. CRC Press. (2) Sarkar, P.K. et al. (1994) Kinema -a traditional soybean fermented food: proximate composition and microflora. Food Microbiology.11:47-55. (3) Ray, R.C. and Montet, D. (2015) Microorganisms and Fermentation of Traditional Foods. CRC Press.

Natto food family around the globe (Part I)

I recently learned that although natto is most popular in Japan, it is fairly well known and appreciated in many other countries in Asia such as China, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore (3).

natto2.jpg

A number of other Asian cultures also turn out to have developed unique traditional foods made from Bacillus-fermented soybeans, similar to natto. For example, Koreans have a fermented soy food called "doenjang*" which is historically made by grinding boiled soybeans into a paste that is then shaped into blocks (called meju), wrapped in dry rice leaves (supplying natural Bacillus subtilis bacteria), hung outdoors and later put into ceramic urns to ferment for a few months (1,2).

* Alternative Korean names: chungkokjang, jeonkukjang, cheonggukjang (1)

Korean doenjang meju hanging during fermentation

Korean doenjang meju hanging during fermentation

Similar to Japanese miso*, matured "doenjang" paste is used as a base to make a soup into which tofu and vegetables are added. This soup/stew, called "doenjang jigae" is a Korean favorite comfort food-- "healthy, stinky but very delicious", I was told (3).  I had to find some.

* Doenjang paste resembles miso in its usage as a condiment/soup base; however, miso is made by a very different fermentation process involving salting and utilizing a fungus/mold (Aspergillus oryzae) instead of Bacillus bacteria.

Doenjang jigae

Doenjang jigae

Upon recommendation (3), I went to BCD Tofu House in Koreatown to try doenjang jigae. The restaurant was packed, mostly with Koreans, a positive sign that the food would be authentically good. The waitress tried to gently steer me away from ordering the dish, but I assured her that I knew it was "smelly" and had come to the restaurant specifically to have it. A few moments later, the doenjang jigae arrived bubbling hot and, as promised, emitting a vaguely pungent, fermented aroma. I actually found the smell to be quite mild and pleasant, definitely similar to natto. It was absolutely delicious; I finished every last drop. 

Hmmm. Possibly a new project for NYrture to work on in the future?

References: (1) Wikipedia [doenjang]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doenjang (2) Tamang, J.P. and Kailasapathy, K. (2010) Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World. CRC Press. (3) personal communication from the great gals of Kopi Coffee (www.kopinyc.com) and VodkaCleanse (www.vodkacleanse.com) at OFI.

Natto grows in New York (Birth of NYrture New York Natto. Part V)

Not that long ago, in a place far, far away from Japan I began making natto at home in New York. Observing a number of natto masters perform their craft certainly did not mean that I was immediately able to do it well myself. Over the course of several months, I experimented with many kinds of soybeans -- GMO-free, organic, black, big and small varietals.  I tried out different methods and durations of cooking the beans. Most critically, I discovered through trial and error how best to nurture the probiotic Bacillus subtilis bacteria during the key step of fermenting the soybeans, transforming them into natto.

Freshly fermented natto looking good and sticky!

Freshly fermented natto looking good and sticky!

Eventually, I found the best ingredients and learned how to make some (damn) good natto, which I was happy to share with family and friends. I then realized I wanted to share it with more people in New York -- those already familiar with natto as well as adventurous eaters interested in trying a new, exotic, nutritious and probiotic food. Briefly, that is how New York Natto was born. 

Hunter's Point, Long Island City may not strike you as a likely place to find natto.  But in this rather bleakly industrial part of town, I found a wonderfully vibrant and progressive community of small food producers at the cooperative commercial kitchen space, Organic Food Incubator. Here, NYrture was pleased to find a happy home in which to nurture New York Natto. 

The Organic Food Incubator (OFI) provides affordable, production-certified kitchen space to select local food start-ups and is host to a diverse array of young companies making everything from gluten-free bread, vegan ice cream, raw vegetable noodles and all-natural gum to cold brew coffee, chai and artisanal bitters. The list goes on and on, and every one of the many things I've had the pleasure of tasting at OFI has been fantastic. All food is made by hard-working hands here.

With Mike Schwartz at OFI

With Mike Schwartz at OFI

Lucky for me, OFI founder Mike Schwartz also owns Bad Ass Organics (www.baofoodanddrink.com) which produces a variety of lacto-fermented probiotic food products including kombucha, kimchee and hot sauces there, so they already have a warm fermentation room where good microbes are more than welcome. "Just being here at OFI is probiotic", says Mike.

 At the OFI kitchen space with some of their amazing staff : James, Butch, Brooks, Daniel

 At the OFI kitchen space with some of their amazing staff : James, Butch, Brooks, Daniel

Many heartfelt thanks to the wonderful people at OFI for welcoming NYrture into their family and for all their support, assistance and advice!

 

Ibaraki Marche (Birth of NYrture New York Natto. Part IV)

Having had a natto epiphany in finding so many premium nattos in Tokyo depachikas, I was even more thrilled to find out about the existence of natto specialty stores. The most impressive selection of nattos I encountered was at Ibaraki Marche.

Ibaraki prefecture is a region of mainland Japan just northeast of Tokyo, famous for producing natto. Many great natto producers are located in Ibaraki, and its central city Mito hosts a popular annual natto speed-eating contest. Ibaraki Marche is a specialty food shop in the Ginza district of Tokyo that sells artisanal food products from the Ibaraki area, including dozens of varieties of excellent natto.

An entire market shelf was dedicated to regional natto varieties, displaying great diversity in product and packaging.

An entire market shelf was dedicated to regional natto varieties, displaying great diversity in product and packaging.

Some nattos were presented very traditionally--wrapped in bundles of straw (seen on the top shelf here). This is how natto was first made and stored, inside boat-shaped sheaths of rice straw, a natural source of  the grass/soil-dwelling bacteria that ferment natto. Like most traditional fermented foods around the world, natto is said to have been discovered by happy accident. The legend of natto is this...

Around 1000 AD, a great samurai and scholar named Hachiman-taro Yoshie and his legion of warriors were poised to conquer the northern part of mainland Japan. One evening, after soybeans and other foods had been cooked for dinner, they discovered an opposing army was approaching and had to mobilize in haste. The samurai's cook quickly wrapped the soybeans in available straw and tied them to a horse's back.  Later, having successfully evaded the attackers, the cook unpacked the soybeans to find them fermented.  The straw had provided a natural source of Bacillus subtilis bacteria, which grew in the warmth and moisture from the body heat and sweat of the horse running through the night. The cook tasted the fermented beans and found them to be delicious (1).  Natto rapidly spread as a culinary tradition throughout northeastern Japan and beyond.

Natto wrapped traditionally in rice straw, having survived a trans-Pacific flight and avoided TSA, wonderfully fragrant of earth and grass.

Natto wrapped traditionally in rice straw, having survived a trans-Pacific flight and avoided TSA, wonderfully fragrant of earth and grass.

Although straw packaging is not legally possible in America, this prompted me to think about packaging alternatives to the unattractive and unrecyclable styrofoam containers in which all available natto is found here. I loved the straw, bark or paper packages I saw in Japan, but realized these were not viable possibilities due to cost and/or food safety restrictions. Instead, we chose to offer our natto in simple glass jars which can be recycled or repurposed.

Reference: (1) History of Natto and Its Relatives. http://www.soyinfocenter.com/HSS/natto1.php

 

 

Natto master (Birth of NYrture New York Natto. Part III)

A student must seek out the best teacher possible.

On the hottest day of the 2014 summer, I went to visit the oldest natto business in the city of Tokyo.  There, I was to meet Hiromitsu Amano, a fifth generation natto maker to learn about his methods.

Amanoya is located down the street from the famous Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in the busy Akibahara/Ochanomizu area of central Tokyo.

Amanoya is located down the street from the famous Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in the busy Akibahara/Ochanomizu area of central Tokyo.

The Amano family has owned and operated Amanoya, which produces premium natto as well as a number of other traditional Japanese fermented foods (amazake, koji and miso) since 1846. The small corner shop in front sells all the specialty foods they make; behind and underneath it are the facilities where they are created. The building and its underground fermentation rooms (similar to cheese aging caves) have been designated an official historic preservation site by the local ward government.

The Amanoya production facility includes specialized underground fermentation rooms over a century old.

The Amanoya production facility includes specialized underground fermentation rooms over a century old.

Amanoya is the oldest natto producer still operating in metropolitan Tokyo. His family's Amanoya natto is a top-tier small batch product, available only in Tokyo in their own Amanoya shop and in a few local gourmet retailers and restaurants. In the 170 years since the Amano family began making natto, the basic technique has remained largely unchanged. Though technical advances have improved equipment, his natto is still made by methods passed down through generations and packaged by hand.

Hiromitsu Amano kindly invited me into his home to learn about his family's work producing natto and many other traditional fermented foods.

Hiromitsu Amano kindly invited me into his home to learn about his family's work producing natto and many other traditional fermented foods.

"Selecting the best available soybeans is key to making the best natto." shared Amano-san.  He said he sources his soybeans from the northern island of Hokkaido, where cooler temperatures produce high quality beans--sweeter and larger than most native Japanese soy varieties. From year to year he may buy from different farms, always looking for the best crop of that season. 

Dry soybeans from Hokkaido. Interestingly, soybeans when dried are almost spherical and elongate upon soaking into a typical bean shape.

Dry soybeans from Hokkaido. Interestingly, soybeans when dried are almost spherical and elongate upon soaking into a typical bean shape.

Amano-san shared his knowledge and brought us inside his natto workshop to see how his natto is created.  There, I saw the simple set-up where he was able to produce such wonderful food, and I was inspired. He explained his natto-making process as his sons worked around us. But finally he said, "There is no great secret; the difficult part [of making natto] is in the simple doing with consistency and care". How modest, yet true of so many things.

Amanoya includes a beautiful little cafe where we sampled some fantastic amazake, a traditional fermented rice drink.

Amanoya includes a beautiful little cafe where we sampled some fantastic amazake, a traditional fermented rice drink.

Much gratitude to Amano-san and his family for their kindness and generosity in opening their doors and sharing their wisdom. 

Amanoya's fabulous natto

Amanoya's fabulous natto

Taking Amano-san's teaching to heart, we at NYrture have done our best to look far and wide across America for the best GMO-free soybeans to use in producing our natto. We will continue to do so.

Natto exploration (Birth of NYrture New York Natto. Part II)

In Japan, natto is an everyday staple food for a significant portion of the population, so many different natto manufacturers compete for grocery store shelf space. Supermarkets generally carry both national and local brands, but most of these are pretty similar in taste and all packaged in a standardized way-- stacks of three or four single-serving flip-top styrofoam boxes. 

Supermarket natto varieties

Supermarket natto varieties

Foodie heaven can be found in the giant food halls (depachikas) located in the basements of nearly all department stores. In these markets, an amazing variety of exquisitely presented specialty edibles are sold and free sampling opportunities abound.

In depachikas, "artisanal" natto from small-scale producers are available; many of these are packaged in more traditional, eco-friendly ways and show more noticeable variation between makers--in quality, taste, freshness and packaging.

This one was packaged simply in folded water-resistant paper. Also, the beans here are much larger than those in popular commercial brands.

This one was packaged simply in folded water-resistant paper. Also, the beans here are much larger than those in popular commercial brands.

This one was made with even huger soybeans and packed in a lovely natural paper-thin sheet of pine bark folded into a triangle shape.

This one was made with even huger soybeans and packed in a lovely natural paper-thin sheet of pine bark folded into a triangle shape.

The above big bean brand sampled with rice, shoyu, hot mustard and chopped shiso leaf---delicious!

The above big bean brand sampled with rice, shoyu, hot mustard and chopped shiso leaf---delicious!

As is true for any food, fresh high quality natto is much more delicious than the cheaper, industrially-produced version.  Premium natto created by artisanal producers is made from carefully chosen soybeans, sourced from small (GMO-free) farms for their particular breed- and climate-dependent flavor/nutritional profiles and bean size, all of which can affect the progression of bean fermentation.

The best kinds of natto are generally produced on a small scale, may only be available in a local area and are delivered fresh without ever being frozen.  Natto is a living food containing live probiotic bacteria. Freezing and thawing natto kills most of these microorganisms and also negatively affects its taste and texture. To preserve all of its best qualities, New York Natto will always be fresh and alive, never frozen before sale.

Natto-maki

The very first thing I ate after arriving and the last thing I ate before departing Japan were the same: a natto-maki roll from the Family Mart chain convenience store. A yummy and healthy snack on the go!

Not the best example of natto, but I loved that natto rolls were so easily found everywhere.

Not the best example of natto, but I loved that natto rolls were so easily found everywhere.

How was NYrture New York Natto born? (Part I)

As a Japanese-American, I have enjoyed eating natto for much of my life. I was introduced to natto by my aunt during visits to see my grandparents in Japan. She would serve me what, to her, was a normal breakfast consisting of rice and natto, miso soup with clams and sometimes a pickled salad.  Born and raised in America, I thought this was pretty odd and may not have been entirely happy at first, but I did learn to love natto there.

Shikoku, Japan circa early 1970s: me with my paternal grandparents

Shikoku, Japan circa early 1970s: me with my paternal grandparents

In Japan, one can buy delicious fresh natto in just about any food shop. In a few places in America like NYC, natto may be found in Asian specialty groceries. However, I was always disappointed that the available natto is always imported frozen from Japan, packaged wastefully in non-recyclable styrofoam/plastic, and made from low quality GMO soy. I wished there was a good alternative.

I'm also a microbiologist and particularly interested in fermented foods made with the help of friendly microorganisms which contribute so very much to our health and to the health of our planet (see MISSION page). Natto (and its close relatives: see more recent BLOG posts) are the only widespread fermented food made with the benign microbe Bacillus subtilis. This bacteria is now recognized as an important member of our gut microbiome, the diverse community of microorganisms living inside of us.

So I decided to spend last summer in Japan with my sons to learn more about natto and how to make it. That is the beginning of the story of how the idea for NYrture New York Natto was born.

Tokyo, Japan 2014: on a mission to discover the secrets of natto...

Tokyo, Japan 2014: on a mission to discover the secrets of natto...