In the realm of the superbean


It’s amazing how much tiny little beans can do.

Though they’re only the size of peas, the light-brown seeds of the soybean plant are one of the food wonders of the world. They are, too, indispensable to Japanese cuisine, and though they only rarely appear raw and unadulterated in the nation’s kitchens, for most Japanese hardly a day passes without them dining on some form of the bean.

In fact, for all the millions who start their days with a typical Japanese breakfast of rice and miso soup, there’s that bean already before their bleary eyes in the steaming contents of their soup bowl — since miso is a fermented concoction of boiled soybeans, rice and salt.

Depending on its region of origin, miso may be made using wheat instead of rice, or simply using soybeans and salt. As a result, miso comes in many colors, shades and tastes — but most Japanese (and many others, too) would agree they are all delicious.

But miso soup isn’t just delicious; it’s amazingly versatile. Among the ingredients most frequently added to miso are seaweed and Japanese leeks, though tofu — itself made from coagulated soy milk — is often plopped in there, too, either in its plain form or in deep-fried slices called abura-age. Perhaps predictably enough, the oil the bean curd is fried in is quite likely to be made from pressed soybeans, too.

With that, though, the soybean plant’s contribution to the typical Japanese breakfast is not yet over, as many people like nothing more on their bowl of sticky white rice than a big sticky dollop of natto — which is fermented soybeans. Originated in Japan, natto is made by introducing a bacterium called bacillus natto, which grows on rice straw, into boiled soybeans before allowing them to ferment. In addition, many people like to eat their natto mixed with some mustard and soy sauce — the seasoning made by fermenting defatted soybeans, wheat and salt. Though it’s noted for its peculiar smell, and taste, many Japanese would swear that “natto every day keeps the doctor away.”

If, however, your favorite way to start the day is with a plate of bacon and eggs and a slice of toast, you, too, are likely partaking of your ration of soybeans. Maybe you used soy oil for the frying; and if it’s margarine you spread on your toast, that will likely contain soy oil, too. Even the hens and pigs providing the protein may well have been fed soybean products.

And all that is just the soybean plant’s contribution to the day’s first meal for many people in Japan.

The soybean plant (Glycine max) is an annual member of the pea family that is native to Japan and China, and for all their popularity in this country, tofu, soy sauce and miso all originated in China. For around 1,000 years the Japanese have been adapting all these food products to suit their own tastes, along the way developing hundreds of enchanting ways to cook and serve them.

Despite having lived with soybeans for so long, the Japanese have recently begun paying renewed attention to them as our understanding of their numerous health benefits improves.

Often referred to as hatake no gyuniku (beef from the fields), soybeans comprise around 35 percent protein of a type that helps to lower the blood’s cholesterol level. They also contain lipid, a fatty organic compound that is believed to raise the levels of beneficial cholesterol. Additionally, these humble pea-plant seeds deliver beneficial sugars, calcium, Vitamin E, fiber and — as has become known recently — soy isoflavones.

This latter chemical, when accumulated in the human body, function like the female sex hormone estrogen, which plays a role in the formation and maintenance of bone. Hence it is considered particularly beneficial for older women whose post-menopausal estrogen level fall, reducing their risk of osteoporisis as well as easing their menopausal disorders.

In addition, it is now believed that soy isoflavones may play a role in preventing cancers. A 2003 report by researchers at the National Cancer Center in Tokyo, who surveyed the health and diet of some 20,000 women over 10 years from 1990, found that women who ate miso soup with every meal had 40 percent less chance of contracting breast cancer than those who didn’t eat miso soup at all. While cautioning about the salt in miso, the report said that these findings were a clear indicator of the health benefits of a soybean diet.

New products on the market

But if tofu and miso are both very good for the body, natto is believed to be even better. Because it is fermented, natto acquires additional nutritional components, including six times the amount of vitamin B2 — which encourages cell growth and renewal — found in unfermented beans. What’s more, natto has an enzyme in it called nattokinase, which acts to dissolve blood clots and so reduce the danger of heart attacks and strokes.

Taken together, health claims such as these have elevated the humble soy to superbean status. They have, too, fueled a drive to put new soy products on the market.

Soy milk is a notable example. In the last year or two, supermarkets and convenience stores have begun selling soy milk not just in its plain form (as they have always done), but made into drinks with flavors ranging from coffee to various fruits and sesame. And they are selling well. According to the Japan Soy Milk Association, soy milk production in 2002 was 16.8 percent up on the year before. This, said association spokesman Atsushi Kanda, continued a trend that has been evident over the past five years, and is likely to continue.

“Soy milk was previously drunk mostly abroad, in countries where it was a primary way of consuming soybeans,” Kanda said. “But with Japanese people appreciating the health benefits of soy more these days, they are drinking more soy milk now.”

While some Japanese used to not drink soy milk because of its peculiar smell and taste, Kanda said that the new flavors manufacturers have come out with have helped fuel the increase in consumption.

Tapping into this trend, coffee franchises like Starbucks and Tully’s Coffee have, since this spring, put soy milk on their menus as a 50 yen optional extra for customers who prefer it to dairy milk.

According to Starbucks Coffee Japan spokeswoman Miya Urasawa, the coffee chain’s stores in the U.S. have had soy milk on the menu since 1995. A few Japanese outlets began offering the soy option in 1999, after one store had to turn down a request for soy milk from an American customer who was allergic to dairy products. Urusawa reports that the company’s move to introduce soy milk in all its stores was because “recently, we were being increasingly asked for the soy milk option not just by foreign customers but also by many Japanese women.”

Competitor Tully’s Coffee, however, offers soy milk only in its stores in Japan. “Soy milk adds a rich flavor to the coffee, and it should be enjoyed not just by health-conscious people but among wider range of customers,” said Tully’s Coffee Japan spokeswoman Tomoko Takahashi. “In fact, we will be introducing a new soy milk-based frozen drink from Monday,” she added.

In addition to such moves, restaurants that specialize in serving only tofu dishes or sweets made from soybeans are now opening in fashionable spots such as the Marunouchi Building and Roppongi Hills Complex in Tokyo.

Ironically, however, although Japan consumes so many soy products, its self-sufficiency rate in terms of soybean production is very low. In fiscal 2001, in fact, it was only 5 percent — virtually all of which was used for edible products. With soy products made of domestically produced soybeans accounting for only 26 percent of what is eaten in Japan, most of the enormous shortfall is made up by imports from the United States, followed by Brazil, Canada, China and Argentina at prices far below anything domestic growers can match. Of these imports, the majority is used to make oil, though soy sauce, tofu, natto and other products sold here also rely on foreign beans.

However, there are consumer concerns over the import of soybeans from genetically modified plants. Whereas the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries states that those beans grown in Japan are all non-GM, trade statistics show that out of some 5.03 million tons of soybeans imported in fiscal 2002, only 740,000 tons were known to be non-GM. The remaining 4.29 million tons of imported beans were used mostly to make soy oil — and what proportion of that total was GM is not included in official data, according to the ministry.

Since 2001, soy-product manufacturers have been required by the Japanese Agricultural Standard to state whether they use GM soybeans or not. Japan’s tofu and natto manufacturers say they are committed to using imported non-GM beans. However, when soy oil and soy sauce are made using GM beans, manufacturers are not obliged to state that fact, as the genetically modified DNA is not detected in the end product.

In a recent move, however, the leading soy sauce manufacturer Kikkoman Corp. has begun using only non-GM soybeans in its products (which command 27 percent of the domestic market). “We have always used soybeans whose safety was assured,” said spokesman Masahiko Shinoharaha. “We wanted our customers to enjoy our soy sauce without any worries.”

Although the Japanese diet has relied heavily on soybeans for so long, there is nothing static in the evolving story of this little bean that’s held by many in near-magical regard.