4 Smelly Superfoods

Saturday, April 16, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Jeanine Natale

Were you one of those kids who hated "stinky" veggies like broccoli and cabbage? Did serving you a spoonful of cod liver oil mean a battle royale for your parents? "But it's good for you!" they'd coax, as if that mattered one bit to you. For some of us, if a food stinks, no amount of vitamins and minerals will cause us to force it down.

If that's the case, maybe some perspective might help. Truth is, none of those foods actually smelled that bad (except maybe the fish oil). You want to know about some real stinky foods? We've got four right here that are guaranteed to make you scrunch up your face, spit them out, and head for the (sweeter-smelling) hills. Yet they're all allegedly supposed to be incredibly good for you. Are they all worth the gag factor? Let's check out these four super-smelly "superfoods."
  1. Kombucha. Yeast. Bacteria. Delicious.

    My favorite massage therapist recently told me about a fermented tea known as kombucha. Having never heard of it before, I was soon intrigued by the many Web sites and blogs dedicated to the stuff, and the glowing testimonials from dedicated fans—even YouTube® videos by drinkers extolling the virtues of this ancient Asian wonder tea that has apparently become the hot new thing in America. That being said, I was definitely grossed out by the main ingredient of kombucha: a big, smelly, slimy grayish blob of yeast-bacteria culture that kombucha lovers call the "mother." It's a symbiotic, probiotic colony of yeast and bacteria (the friendly type), and kombucha is made by combining this culture with a mixture of black tea, water, and sugar. (The "mother" is created from an originating batch of tea, water, and sugar that successfully ferments, so becoming the culture for all subsequent batches—much the way sourdough bread is made.) The ingredients are allowed to ferment, usually from 7 to 10 days, preferably in a wide-mouth jar covered in a porous cloth that will allow the mixture to "breathe" while filtering out any impurities. However, it's at this stage that contamination can easily occur (most impurities are airborne—especially in this case), which could turn the tea into something that could get you really sick if ingested. If all goes well, however, the result is a jar of fizzy, cider-like brew topped by a floating jellyfish-like mass that smells—by most accounts—like a mix of stinky feet, stale sweat, and the sticky, beer-soaked carpet of your local dive bar. The taste is similarly quite pungent and tangy, but the tea is said to contain "dozens of elements, many of which are known to promote healing for a variety of conditions."

    What does this mean, exactly? It's suggested that newcomers to "K-tea" start out with no more than 1 to 4 ounces in a day, and to let ther bodies get used to the stuff gradually before increasing the amount of daily intake. So a one-ounce serving of "plain" kombucha (no added sweeteners or flavors) contains 5 calories, 2.1 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin B12, 3.1 percent of the RDA of folate, 1.3 grams of sodium, 1 gram of total carbohydrate, and 0.5 gram of total sugars. Also present are varying amounts of lactic, acetic, malic, oxalic, gluconic, butyric, nucleic, and amino acids, as well as enzymes.

    And therein lies the rub: While regulated amounts of vitamin B12 and folate should be part of a healthy diet, the jury's still out on the host of acids and other elements found in kombucha, which are indeed responsible for the smell and flavor of the tea. But are they actually good for you? For instance, malic acid is present in unripe fruits. It's what makes apples sour and tart, but it'll also burn your mouth if you eat too much, and just like Mom always predicted, too large a dose will give you a tummy ache. Butyric acid is found in Parmesan cheese—and vomit. (You make the connection.) Oxalic acid's main applications are bleaching and rust removal, while calcium oxalate is the most common component of kidney stones. There have not yet been any conclusive studies showing that the regular consumption of these elements actually produces consistent beneficial results. And, as even kombucha lovers will tell you, too much is not a good thing.

    Bottom Line: The risk of contamination in a homemade kombucha brew is high—the consequence of which is turning your tea from healthy to potentially deadly. Some of the elements present in this brew can be good for you in very small amounts; however, ingesting too much of the other elements present can have the opposite effect. Furthermore, there's a lot to be said for regularly brewed, unfermented tea, which is loaded with antioxidants. The conclusion? Just because it smells bad doesn't mean it's necessarily good for you.

    Smelly Superfood Vote: NO.
  2. Durian. A fruit that could kill you if thrown with enough force, and smells deadly too.

    This tropical fruit is widely eaten and loved in Southeast Asia, apparently for both its taste (which has been described as having elements of mango and creamy custard with notes of onion or garlic) and its nutritional value. It's a fascinating fruit—grown on trees throughout the region, a ripe durian is about the size and shape of a rounded football and is covered in thick, sturdy half-inch-long thorns, making it look like a very distressed blowfish. Indeed, it's recommended that those who harvest the fruit wear a hardhat, and there are often signs posted at the base of the trees warning people not to linger under them too long for fear of being bonked on the head—a bloody and potentially fatal occurrence.

    It takes a really sturdy, large knife to crack these things open, and it's best to do this outdoors, on a solid, steady surface. Opening a durian outdoors is also recommended because it'll stink up your place pretty quickly, with the odor (imagine rotten, mushy onions mixed with sweaty old gym socks and a dash of vomit) lasting for a good, long while. The flesh, which is a pale yellow with a creamy or custardy texture, surrounds five or six large seeds—the layout of flesh and seeds is much like that of an avocado. It's a bit of a challenge to find durian in the U.S.—some Asian markets will carry them, usually in the freezer section, but because of their extreme smell, shipping from overseas is not a common occurrence. It's also important to understand that even in the countries where durian is a beloved and popular treat, many office buildings, hospitals, and mass transit systems actually forbid the fruit to be carried, let alone opened and eaten on the premises! However, if you do come across some and you really want to buy one, it'll cost you anywhere from $5 up to $25—depending on availability and quality.

    So how does this superfruit add up? A single 243-gram (1 cup) serving contains 357 calories, with 108 of those calories coming from unsaturated fat. You will however, receive 80 percent of your RDA of vitamin C and 37 percent of your RDA of dietary fiber, along with substantial RDAs of thiamin (61%), riboflavin (29%), vitamin B6 (38%), folate (22%), potassium (30%), manganese (39%), copper (25%), and magnesium (18%).

    Bottom Line: For those in areas or economic situations that make a nutritionally sufficient diet a hard thing to come by, or for anyone living in Southeast Asia, durian could definitely be of value. But for the sheer desire to add something healthy and smart to balance out a diet, my vote is definitely a big thumbs-down. Lack of availability, difficulty of preparation, and high fat and caloric content all make this fruit not so super.

    Smelly Superfood Vote: NO.
  3. Natto. Mucus-y snot-chunks flavored with mustard, vinegar, and soy sauce . . .

    Eloquently described by a Japanese friend whose mom looooves to eat the natto, or fermented soybeans, this stuff is something both old-timers and young people throughout Japan have historically enjoyed eating in a variety of ways. And as Japanese culture and cuisine have become more known and loved around the world, so has natto. It's common knowledge that soybeans must be cooked or fermented in some way in order to release their nutritive value (as we have learned from miso, soy sauce, tofu, and edamame). Long hailed as a staple of traditional Japanese diets, natto consists of soaked and steamed soybeans that are then laced with Bacillus subtilis natto (a "good" bacteria) and left to ferment in a warm, moist, dark, and airtight place for a day or so. Another week of successful aging, this time in the refrigerator, results in the beans becoming covered in a thick, slimy goo, the odor of which is quite reminiscent of, well, Limburger cheese. Usually natto is found in a market's refrigerator section, in little ready-to-eat single-serving packs with pouches of mustard and soy sauce. Natto lovers enthusiastically flip open the lid, peel off the plastic-film cover, and give the beans a brisk stir—"15 times" as an old saying goes. This makes the beans even slimier, and the thick, mucus-like coating gets extra-stringy and goopy, all good signs of a really yummy batch of natto. It's commonly eaten over a bowl of rice, and lots of natto fans add a raw egg to the whole mess, along with a handful of sliced green onions.

    How does this treat add up, nutrition-wise? Well, perhaps millions of people can't be that wrong. One 100-gram serving of natto contains 212 calories, 18 grams of protein (35 percent of your RDA), 47 percent of your RDA of iron, 16 percent of your RDA of total fat, 7 percent of your RDA of saturated fat, and 21 percent each of your RDAs of dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin C. If you're manganese-deficient, this stuff is for you—it's got 76 percent of your RDA, along with significant amounts of copper (33 percent of your RDA), vitamin K and magnesium (38 percent of your RDA each), potassium (30 percent of your RDA), zinc (20 percent of your RDA), phosphorus (17 percent of your RDA), selenium (a whopping 212 percent of your RDA), thiamin (10 percent of your RDA), riboflavin (11 percent of your RDA), vitamin B6 (6 percent of your RDA), and folate (2 percent of your RDA). So that's why people eat the stuff! According to the Federation of Japan Natto Manufacturers' Cooperative Society, as of 2007, approximately 130,000 tons of soybeans went into natto production yearly, and more than 79 percent of those who chose to eat natto did so because of its nutritional value.

    Bottom Line: It's smelly, it's slimy, it looks and tastes weird, and it kinda has a lot of calories too. However, I like blue cheese, so who am I to talk? Many, many people who love to eat natto will tell you right off that it's an acquired taste, but that you will grow to love it. And the nutritional punch this stuff packs makes it an Official Smelly Superfood. I might just be willing to give it another try.

    Smelly Superfood Vote: YES.
  4. Marmite®. "Love it or hate it." It says so right in the ad!

    Despite the fact that this sticky, gooey stuff stinks to high heaven, it seems to be gaining popularity among a whole new generation of Marmite eaters. According to the "i like marmite" Facebook page, Marmite is "made from spent brewer's yeast, that comes in a distinctive black jar with a yellow lid." Although Marmite is currently owned by corporate leviathan Unilever, the Marmite Food Extract Company came into being back in 1902, when someone at a food factory figured out that all the leftover yeast extract from the brewery next door actually had some nutritional value—mainly a host of B vitamins, which are good for cell metabolism, healthy skin, and fighting off anemia, among other things. Marmite's makers have shamelessly kept the exact recipe secret. However, they tell us that extra vitamin B ingredients do get added to the mix, along with some vegetable and spice extracts. The general breakdown goes something like this: A single four-gram serving contains 9 calories, 200 mg of sodium (8 percent of your RDA), and 1.5 grams of protein (3 percent of your RDA). It'll also give you the following RDAs: 60 percent of vitamin B12, 50 percent of folic acid, 36 percent of riboflavin, 18 percent of thiamin, and 17 percent of niacin.

    Marmite is really salty, quite pungent, savory, and tangy. Think of it as really smelly, thick, nutritious soy sauce, if you know what I mean. I asked my neighbor, who hails from London, what he thought of Marmite. "Hate it!" he immediately exclaimed. "But," he added, "my children both love it." Apparently, Father doesn't always know best.

    Bottom Line: Go for it! (In, of course, very small doses.) If you put it on your toast, the thinnest of layers will do.

    Smelly Superfood Vote: YES.