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Love it or hate it, sales of cheap, nutritious natto surge over 5 years

A shopper buys natto in a supermarket in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

Love it or hate it, natto (fermented soy beans) is a product that is becoming increasingly popular in Japan, with overall sales rising.

    According to estimates by the Japan natto cooperative society federation, the size of the natto market has expanded by nearly 30 percent over the past five years, reaching a historic peak in 2016. It would seem that the product satisfies consumers' demands for a healthy product that saves money -- because it is so nutritious and cheap -- and that it is also a hit among senior citizens who live alone, because it is so easy to prepare.

    In particular, natto that is made from domestically grown soybeans has become popular among consumers who are particularly conscious about food safety. Taking factors such as this into account, makers are cashing in on the boom and continuing to release new natto products onto the market.

    According to the federation, the market size for natto was 218.4 billion yen (about $2 billion) in 2016, which represented a 26 percent increase compared to the 173 billion yen figure in 2011.

    As for the reasons behind the increased market size, a PR spokesperson for the federation says that, "Natto meets the consumer demands of saving money and eating something healthy."

    The fermented soybean product is rich in protein and vitamins, and its cheaply priced packs at the front of supermarkets are attractive for customers. For example, at Akidai supermarket in Tokyo's Nerima Ward, where two packs of natto can be bought for just 45 yen, "approximately 50 packs are sold each day, with the product completely selling out on some days," according to the supermarket's president.

    In a survey on the product carried out by the federation in June 2017, it was found that about 65 percent of people who bought natto "place importance on price."

    Another factor behind natto's growing popularity is the increase in senior citizens who live alone. As the federation explains, "It is common for elderly people, who feel that preparing a meal for one is a troublesome task, to buy natto together with ready-made meals at supermarkets."

    The most popular natto products are those composed from homegrown soy beans. Lately, there has been an increased sense of caution among consumers, with a growing tendency to opt for domestic food items. In response to this trend, the amount of domestic soy beans used for natto is estimated to have risen from 11,000 tons in 2011 to 25,000 tons in 2016, which is a more than twofold increase.

    Natto maker Azuma Shokuhin Co., which is based in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, has seen sales of its "domestic medium sized soybean natto" grow by 10 percent annually over the past several years. Apparently, the firm's "production line has reached full capacity." At the end of August, the company also released "wasabi-flavored natto," which is made from Hokkaido soybeans and Azumino wasabi.

    In March 2017, Mizkan in Aichi Prefecture released a product called "Kume natto," made up of large-size domestic soybeans. "The large beans are filling, so they can be eaten as a side dish, in addition to being placed on rice," the company says. Sales of its natto made from domestic soybeans between March and August 2017 have increased by nearly 10 percent, compared to the corresponding period in 2016.

    However, despite the product's increasing popularity, there are some issues. Consumers of natto tend to be middle aged or elderly, with young people tending not to buy it. The federation thinks that "young people have little interest in health," and therefore they generally avoid it.

    In an attempt to change this trend, the federation has been launching natto-themed cooking contests for high school students, hoping that it will lead to greater demand amongst youngsters.

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