By Linda Funk, President of Flavorful Insight
Changing global health attitudes have contributed to the rising interest in wellness and created new opportunities for functional foods, including fermented soy foods. The market for fermented foods and drinks is expected to grow by $846.73 billion from 2023 to 2027 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.16%. The Asia Pacific region is anticipated to show the largest growth. Fermented foods made with Sustainable U.S. Soy include tempeh, miso and soy yogurt as well as the traditional Japanese specialty, natto.
Natto is customarily eaten with rice at breakfast in Japan, where it is considered a nutritional food. When used as a condiment, natto is mixed with other ingredients such as mustard, chives and soy sauce. Made from fermented soybeans, natto is distinguished by its sticky texture. The signature strong aroma and cheese-like flavor have led to natto being compared to a soy food version of Limburger cheese.
Currently, Sustainable U.S. Soy provides approximately 70% of the soybeans used by Japan’s natto industry. U.S. researchers and growers continue to provide the high-protein, small-seed-size soybeans with a clear hilum to meet the growing demands of the industry.
#1 - Going for Gut Health and Immune-Boosting
Culinary medicine is a fairly new trend linking food and health— an evidence-based field in medicine that blends the science of medicine with the art of food and cooking. The goal is to help people make good personal decisions about eating high-quality meals that help prevent and treat disease. Compared to 2020 food attitudes, 33% more consumers are looking for functional foods, with nutrients that deliver specific health benefits starting to take the lead. Fermented foods are associated with gut health and immune boosting in particular, two areas of consumer interest worldwide. For example, 58% of global consumers are reportedly aware of benefits that bacteria in the digestive system can have on overall health. Popular fermented soy foods include soy yogurt and tempeh, with natto poised to gather momentum due to its probiotic and fiber content.
Various studies suggest that natto has a high probiotic potential, and eating natto has been linked to health advantages, including a decrease in certain illnesses and a lower risk of death, due to compounds such as nattokinase, PGA, and isoflavones. Fermented soy foods— including tempeh, miso and natto—have been studied for their compounds with potential health benefits, and including these compounds in the diet has been associated with the reduction of chronic diseases.
Immune-boosting is becoming a key health-and-wellness focus for many of the world’s consumers. In 2021, 70% of Chinese consumers reported regularly including foods that contain immune-boosting nutrients in their diets because of COVID-19 and half of them said they planned to continue doing so. When it comes to choosing food and drink products, 47% of Thai consumers are attracted to products with functional benefits that improve immunity. In the past five years, Europe has seen the most launches of immunity-enhancing products (41%), followed by Asia Pacific (34%). Natto can be added to soups and stews, or added to vegetable dishes such as okra.
#2 - Enjoying the Culinary Attributes of Fermented Soy foods
Fermentation is a culinary enhancer for plant-based foods and condiments. Natto is well-positioned as a sustainable, high-quality plant protein. It also serves as both a condiment and a flavoring. Consumers are seeking more condiments with international ingredients and flavors, thus creating additional opportunities for soy ingredients such as miso and earthy-flavored natto. Condiment market sales are expected to top $10 billion by 2023, with taste as the current driver of food choices.
Creating hybrid condiments—combining natto’s umami flavor with mayonnaise or mustard—is a way to introduce foodservice chefs and home cooks to natto as a sandwich spread or dip. Other ideas include balsamic vinegar/natto-glazed roasted root vegetables. Adding a bit of vinegar to natto reduces the bold smell and taste of natto. Adding few drops of sesame oil adds flavor to the natto and tends to reduce the smell. Natto can also add robust flavor to salads or pizza.
#3 - Trying Trendy Superfoods
While not a nutritionally recognized category of foods, superfood is a term usually reserved for natural, nutrient-dense foods that are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and may also be high in flavonoids, fiber and good fats. The global superfoods market reached $164.38 billion last year and is expected to hit $228.04 billion by 2026. Natto is widely regarded as a Japanese superfood for several reasons, including its potential effects on the digestive system and its attractive nutrition profile. One cup of natto provides 34 grams of protein and 9.45 grams of dietary fiber. Adventurous consumers may want to try breakfast ideas like avocado-natto toast with an egg, or biscuits brushed with natto-bacon butter. Natto can also add brush-on flavor for braised or barbecued meats.
#4 - Exploring Intriguing Innovations
Areas of opportunity in the Asia Pacific region include product innovation featuring functional foods, fortified foods (such as fortified tofu), and traditional ingredients (like natto or okara). For example, food scientists at the National University of Singapore have created a fermented probiotic beverage from okara (soy pulp residue from producing tofu and soymilk). A new study indicates that okara fermented with Aspergillus spp. may have the potential to improve metabolism and help mitigate diet-related obesity due to nutritional factors, soy protein, isoflavones and phospholipids.
Natto shows additional promise as a savory snack ingredient. While taste remains the primary consideration for consumers, snack products with a nutritional component and functional ingredients are gaining traction, as are products with new textures and shapes. Natto fits into these categories, and can hold appeal for adventurous snackers.
This article was partially funded by U.S. Soy farmers, their checkoff and the soy value chain.
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