by Lizzy Sebuck
My Mom always told me when I went to college I would try new things. As an adolescent bad-ass I always envisioned a daily three course meal of hallucinogens and happy drugs as my university diet, but to my surprise it was my appetite for trying new foods that developed, not my craving to be more like A+ role model Lindsay Lohan.
Up until college, the only food I ever accredited to the Japanese was Ramen Noodles (personally, I’m a chicken flavor kind of girl but I’ll indulge in the shrimp flavor packets whenever I’m feeling fancy). My discovery of sushi started small; a California roll here, a Spicy Tuna roll there, and as my love for seaweed and raw fish grew, so did my desire for trying as many different rolls as possible. Now nearing the end of my college career, I eat sushi at least once a week and take advantage of as many all-you-can-eat specials as possible.
Herein lies my biggest problem, once I start eating sushi I don’t want to stop. My roommate and I sit down at least once a week and stuff our faces with about three rolls each before falling into a food coma and slumping onto the table each time. Now keep in mind: I’m a girl who likes to eat until I’ve got a button on my pants undone and can hardly breathe, so this inability to scarf down more than three rolls has left me feeling ironically unsatisfied.
This past week, while dining on our favorite dish, we noticed something very peculiar at our neighboring table. An employee at Ichiban was enjoying his lunch break after we had tortured ourselves into taking down our last few pieces of sushi. We gazed at the employee with awe and astonishment as he ordered edamame, miso soup, as well as not three or four, but FIVE rolls for himself! We agreed that there was no way he would be able to take down the entire fishy feast, but, to our surprise, this Japanese dude was able to wolf down the entire dish! My first thought: jealous. My second thought: how!? I couldn’t help myself, I had to research why this little Japanese guy was able to eat more than Lizzy the Hulk.
Porphyran, a polysaccharide present in the cell walls of a red algae that is used notably in the preparation of sushi, is broken down specifically by an enzyme called porphyranase. This new enzymatic activity has been identified in marine bacteria and, surprisingly, in the bacteria that populate the gut of the Japanese. Scientists from CNRS and UPMC have explained this discovery by a transfer of genes between the bacteria, that allows the gut microbiota of the Japanese to acquire all the “machinery” it needs to consume the algae that surround sushi.
Get ready for some weird science people. To realize the true difference between Japanese digestion compared to that of other ethnicities’, the researchers at Station Biologique studied the microbiota inside the human gut. By looking at microbiota samples from 13 Japanese individuals and 18 North American individuals, they found the Japanese microbiota to contain the enzyme porphyranase, while the North Americans did not.
Now, of course, this enzyme doesn’t mean that Japanese folks have magically expanding stomachs, but because they have this enzyme they’re able to digest the algae that surrounds sushi better than North Americans can ever hope to! Having this enzyme allows the Japanese to digest sushi more easily because the enzyme speeds up the digestion process and is therefore easier on the stomach. It’s just not fair! Through centuries of consumption of raw fish and marine bacteria, the stomachs of the Japanese have adapted to the delicious and super-filling carbohydrates in sushi.
So here’s some advice to my fellow sushi lovers:
1. If you have the opportunity in life to try a Mountain Roll don’t pass it up, they’re amazing.
2. Don’t try to challenge any of your Japanese friends to a sushi-eating contest any time soon. Odds are they’ll probably kick your ass and leave you with a nasty stomach ache.
“Why The Japanese Can Easily Digest Sushi”
by: Jan-Hendrik Hehemann, Gaëlle Correc, Tristan Barbeyron, William Helbert, Mirjam Czjzek, Gurvan Michel. Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota. Nature, 2010; 464 (7290): 908 DOI: 10.1038/nature08937