The fermented soybean paste miso is a must-have in the Japanese diet. It offers many nutritional benefits, such as strengthening your gut health, improving your heart, and more!
Miso, the funky nutrient rich paste is a vital player in Washoku (和食), Japanese cuisine. Most may already be familiar with miso soup, but beyond the delicious taste, have you ever wondered about the health benefits of this salty-savory condiment?
As a fermented food, miso has been widely recognized as one of the top superfoods for gut health. In fact, there is a proverb「味噌は医者いらず」(eat miso and you won’t need to see a doctor), the Japanese solution to “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Incredibly rich in amino acids, essentials vitamins, and minerals, miso packs a serious nutritional punch.
So what is miso and how does the Japanese enjoy it as part of a healthy diet? Let’s have a look at the unique properties of miso and how you can best reap the benefits.
An Overview: What is Miso
Miso (味噌) is fermented soybean paste. It’s made by fermenting mashed soybeans with salt and a culture called koji (麹, Aspergillus oryzae, the fungus that is also used to make sake, shochu, and rice vinegar). Traditionally, the fermentation takes place in large cedar-wood kegs.
Besides soybeans, other beans and grains such as wheat, barley, millet and azuki can be used. Some miso producers have experimented with non-traditional ingredients such as edamame, chickpeas, quinoa, and other beans and grains.
The fermentation process can last from six months to several years. As miso is a living food, it will continue to ferment if left in a cool environment, resulting in a deep and mellow flavor. Most commercial miso rely on accelerated fermentation, which can last from weeks to a few months and usually takes place in plastic or stainless steel vats. Some are pasteurized to extend its shelf life but as it contains no probiotics, you should steer away from those.
According to the Japan Miso Promotion Board, there are over 1,300 kinds of miso! Like wine and cheese, it varies by the region, ingredients, color, aroma, and taste. So, each Japanese household would make a slightly different miso soup than his/her neighbor.
Health Benefits of Miso
Miso has long been touted as a health food. Traditionally, the Japanese drink a bowl of miso soup three times a day as part of the Ichiju Sansai meal to stimulate their appetite.
Numerous studies on the health properties of drinking miso soup have found potential benefits, both short and long term. While these studies are not definitive and vary across race, age, ethnicity, gender, and diet, the benefits may include:
- improved digestive health
- decreased cholesterol levels
- lowered risk of some cancers
- reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and promotes heart health
- potential prevention of type 2 diabetes
- eased menopausal symptoms
- improved skin conditions
Improves digestive health
As a fermented food product, miso is a probiotic like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi. Probiotics contain “good” bacteria, and consuming the right kind of bacteria can help reduce inflammation, aid healthy digestion, and support a healthy immune system. Simply said, miso helps improve your body’s ability to digest and absorb food!
Decreases cholesterol levels
There are animal studies that shows that miso may help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol, compared to HDL “good” cholesterol). Low cholesterol levels lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Lowers risks of some cancers
Miso may be beneficial for preventing radiation injury and the progression of cancerous tumors. As miso is rich in antioxidants, this helps guard your body’s cells against damage from free radicals, a type of cell damage linked to cancer. There are animal and human studies that report that consuming miso may reduce the risk of lung, colon, stomach and breast cancers.
Reduces risk of cardiovascular diseases and promotes health
Miso soup may reduce the risk of death from heart diseases. One study showed that higher levels of isoflavones (a type of nutritional supplement found in the legume family) correlated with lower risk of strokes and heart attacks in some Japanese women.
May prevent type 2 diabetes
Some studies show that fermented soy products such as miso may help delay the progression of type 2 diabetes.
Eases menopausal symptoms
Soybeans provide a range of health benefits for women, including the alleviation of hot flashes in menopausal women. Soy food products are also associated with optimal bone health and help avoid osteoporosis.
Improves skin conditions
Miso is rich in antioxidants such as vitamin E, isoflavones, and saponins. Antioxidants helps protects the body from free radicals that can cause signs of aging as well as boosts overall health. Miso also contains linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that helps your skin stay soft and free of pigments.
What about the Salt in Miso?
While miso itself is indeed high in salt, the Japanese consume it on a regular basis. Recent studies have shown that miso does not appear to affect our cardiovascular system in the way that other high-sodium foods can.
In addition, you don’t need a large spoonful of miso to make miso soup or as a seasoning in stir fries. You just need a little, which will go a long way. The miso flavor in miso soup shouldn’t be gut punching, it should be subtle enough to notice its existence without being overwhelming.
To decrease the body’s absorption of sodium, you can add vegetables high in potassium such as potatoes, spinach and other leafy vegetables, wakame and other seaweeds, and bamboo shoots. You could also decrease the amount of miso you add to the pot and load it up with more vegetables.
Another tip is to drink green tea to counterbalance the salt intake.
While you won’t be able to absorb all the benefits of miso from just one bowl of miso soup, try to incorporate it into your daily meal. Who knows, it may become your comfort food! You can easily adjust the ingredients to your preferences (any vegetable and protein works), and even prep it in advance for instant miso soup.
How to Reap the Benefits of Miso
Ready to take in all the nutritional benefits of miso? Here are a few tips to maximize its potential!
- Buy quality miso! Taste it as is; if you like it plain, it should be good miso!
- Check the ingredient list for any foreign additions such as alcohol, stabilizers or other additives. The ingredient list should be pretty simple.
- Avoid high heat when cooking with miso as it will kill off the good bacteria. When making miso soup, turn off the heat and dissolve the miso (using a miso muddler like this will help avoid clumps of miso).
- Rather than making a big batch of miso soup and repeatedly reheating the pot for each meal, prepare it for each meal. While this may seem like a tedious task, the aroma of miso is very delicate and will disappear with heat.
- To consume the benefits of miso, drink one bowl of miso soup at each meal frequently instead of drinking large amounts in a single meal.
- When making miso soup from scratch, also prep homemade dashi! Instant dashi packets are convenient, but do contain large amounts of salt and other additives.
- As advocated by medical practitioners, there is a gut clock to our body’s mobility system. So it’s best to enjoy it during the day, the earlier the better.
- Think outside of the realm of miso soup! Use miso in marinades, dressings, glazes, dipping sauces, and more.
On the Probiotics of Miso
As miso is a probiotic, heating it will kill off the lactic acid bacteria (AKA the “good bacteria”). But does that mean cooked miso is depleted of its nutritional benefits?
Not quite. First of all, the Japanese do not treat miso as merely a source of probiotics, instead we use it more as an ingredient and flavoring agent. Think miso soup and marinades for meat and fish, which gets cooked. As mentioned above, miso soup is chock full of protein, fiber and minerals, which are unaffected with heat. For gut health, the Japanese rely on other sources such as tsukemono, natto and non-Japanese foods such as yogurt, cheese, and kimchi (thanks to the K-Pop boom, kimchi is widely available that you can find it at any supermarket or convenience store).
To avoid cooking off the lactic acid when making miso soup, you can make sure to turn off the heat and cool the pot until 50C/122F – 70C/158F (the probiotics will die above 70C/158F). But most Japanese people don’t take an exact temperature reading, and just turn off the heat when adding miso to the pot.
Unfortunately, scorching hot miso soup is pretty rampant, especially in restaurants. But it should be understood that maintaining low temperature miso soup could lead to food safety issues. So to reap the probiotic benefits of miso, use it in salad dressing, dipping sauces or eat it plain!
Substitute for Miso Paste
In terms of overall composition, taste and health benefits, there is truly no good substitute for miso. There are fermented pastes from other Asian countries, but the ingredients and culinary uses vastly differ.
Some western websites suggest soy sauce or tahini (sesame paste) as substitute. However, these alternatives should be considered as last resorts if miso is used in a very small amount as a flavoring booster. Otherwise, they really don’t match the pure flavor and benefits of miso at all.
Perhaps the most similar ingredient to miso is doenjang (된장), fermented Korean soybean paste. It’s like a cousin to miso. The difference between the two is that doenjang is made with soybeans and salt only, without the koji starter. The resulting flavor profile is sharper and stronger. The culinary uses differ, where doenjang complements the hearty chili spiced Korean cuisine. Korean miso soup is called doenjang guk, which may have garlic or gochujang in addition.
You could substitute doenjang for miso in a pinch, but as mentioned above, it is generally not recommended.
Concern about Soy?
As soy is one of the top food allergens, some people may have concerns about consuming miso. Despite the controversy over unfermented soy, many studies have concluded that fermented soy products like miso and natto are safe and beneficial for one’s health. The fermentation process has proven to deactivate antinutrients and lessening any negative effects that soy might have.
In Japan and many other Asian countries, soy has been consumed since ancient times and remain a staple in the diet. However, everyone’s health is different and is highly influenced by lifestyle, environment, genetic, and general diet (read Medical News and Harvard Public Health and Dr.Weil’s Rethinking Soy).
Our advice is to enjoy your food, even the healthiest food like miso, in moderation. Go with non-GMO, organic choice if possible.
If you are sensitive to histamine, there are other non-soy miso using chickpea, azuki bean, barley, millet, brown rice, and other beans and grains. Do check the label before purchasing. You can also consider making miso with non-soy ingredients.
Make Your Own Miso
Interested in making miso? Check out Nami’s recipe for homemade miso. All you need are 4 ingredients and patience!
What are some of your favorite ways of enjoying miso? Please share in the comment box below!