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Miso

The salty taste and buttery texture of miso, a fermented soybean paste originating in Japan, is becoming increasingly popular in the West as a versatile condiment for a host of different recipes. Once only found in specialty stores, miso is available year round in many local supermarkets.

Although miso is usually made from soy beans, it can also be produced from rice, barley or wheat by adding a yeast mold (known as “koji”) and other ingredients which are allowed to ferment. The fermentation time, ranging from weeks to years, depends upon the specific type of miso being produced. Once this process is complete, the fermented ingredients are ground into a paste similar in texture to peanut butter.


Health Benefits

Miso is a soy paste that is created by innoculating trays of rice with the vitamin B-12 synthesizing bacteria, Aspergillus oryzae, then mixing in a ground preparation of cooked soybeans and salt, and letting the mixture ferment for several days before grinding it into a paste with a nut butter consistency. Because it is fermented with a B12 synthesizing bacteria, miso has been commonly recommended as a B12 source for vegans. Miso is quite high in sodium (1 ounce contains 52% of the recommended daily value for sodium), but a little miso goes a long way towards providing your daily needs for the trace minerals zinc, manganese, and copper. In addition, a single tablespoon of miso contains 2 grams of protein for just 25 calories. An impressive nutrient profile for a flavoring agent! Use miso in your cooking instead of plain old salt and reap a variety of benefits in addition to enhanced flavor.

Miso's Minerals Support Immune Function, Energy Production, Bones and Blood Vessels

If one mineral were awarded first prize for its beneficial effects on immune function, it would be zinc. A cofactor in a wide variety of enzymatic reactions, zinc is critial to immune function and wound healing.
Copper and manganese, two other enzyme cofactors, are essential components of the enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which is important in energy production and antioxidant defenses. Copper is also necessary for the activity of lysyl oxidase, an enzyme involved in cross-linking collagen and elastin, both of which provide the ground substance and flexibility in blood vessels, bones and joints.
Iron is primarily used as part of hemoglobin, the molecule responsible for transporting and releasing oxygen throughout the body. But hemoglobin synthesis also relies on copper. Without copper, iron cannot be properly utilized in red blood cells. Fortunately, Mother Nature supplies both minerals in miso.

Protection Against Breast Cancer

The incidence of breast cancer in first-generation Japanese migrants to Hawaii is about 60 percent of the rate in subsequent generations of Japanese born in Hawaii. Researchers thought this might have something to do with the fact that, in Japan, consumption of soy foods is about five times or more what it is among Japanese migrants to Hawaii. Researchers at the Departments of Nutrition Sciences and Biostatistics/Biomathematics, University of Alabama at Birmingham, theorized that miso, natto, soy sauce, and other traditionally fermented soybean foods might contribute to their lower incidence of disease. To test this hypothesis, the scientists initiated feeding trials with rats and found that feeding the rats miso delayed the appearance of induced breast cancer compared with animals on the control diet. The miso-supplemented rats showed a trend toward a lower number of cancers per animal, a trend toward a higher number of benign tumors per animal, and a trend toward a lower growth rate of cancers compared with controls. The researchers concluded, "This data suggest that miso consumption may be a factor producing a lower breast cancer incidence in Japanese women. Organic compounds found in fermented soybean-based foods may exert a chemoprotective effect."

Description

Miso is a fermented soybean paste whose salty taste, buttery texture and unique nutritional profile make it a versatile condiment for a host of different recipes, including traditional miso soup. In addition to soybeans, some misos also feature rice, barley or wheat.

Miso is made by adding a yeast mold (known as “koji”) to soybeans and other ingredients and allowing them to ferment. The fermentation time, ranging from weeks to years, depends upon the specific type of miso being produced. Once this process is complete, the fermented ingredients are ground into a paste similar in texture to peanut butter.

The color, taste, texture, and degree of saltiness depend upon the exact ingredients used and the duration of the fermentation process. Miso ranges in color from white to brown. The lighter varieties are less salty and more mellow in flavor while the darker ones are saltier and have a more intense flavor. Some misos are pasteurized while others are not.

The different types of miso include:
  • hatcho miso (made from soybeans)
  • kome miso (made from white rice and soybeans)
  • mugi miso (made from barley and soybeans)
  • soba miso (made from buckwheat and soybeans)
  • genmai miso (made from brown rice and soybeans)
  • natto miso (made from ginger and soybeans)

While miso is the Japanese name we are most familiar with in the United States, this fermented soybean paste is also known as “chiang” in China, and “chao do” in Vietnam.

History

The origins of miso, like many other foods made from soybeans, can be traced to ancient China. Its predecessor was known as Hisio, a seasoning made from fermenting soybeans, wheat, alcohol, salt and other ingredients. Some accounts hold that it was a luxury food item, only enjoyed by the wealthy aristocrats.

This fermented soybean paste was introduced into Japan around the 7th century. The refined and elaborate process of making miso was further developed throughout the centuries to produce the miso that we know today.

The creation of miso is very complex and is held as a high art in Asia, just as wine making and cheese making are revered in other parts of the world.

Miso is now becoming more widely available in the United States due to growing popularity of the macrobiotic diet and escalating interest in Asian food culture, stimulated by research suggesting it has numerous health benefits.

How to Select and Store

Miso is generally sold in tightly sealed plastic or glass containers. Some stores also sell it in bulk containers. To check for freshness, look for a sell-by date listed on the container. In addition, check the label to make sure there are no additives such as MSG.

The type of miso that you purchase should depend both on personal preference as well as intended use. As darker color misos are stronger and more pungent in flavor, they are generally better suited for heavy foods. Lighter colored misos are more delicate and are oftentimes more appropriate for soup, dressings and light sauces.

Miso should be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container where it can keep for up to one year.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Miso soup is quick and easy to prepare. Heat miso paste and water over low-medium heat. Eat as is or add in some traditional fixings including shiitake mushrooms, tofu, scallions, burdock, carrots, and daikon radish.

Miso-tahini sandwiches are one of our favorites. To make your own, just spread miso on a piece of bread and then top with tahini. Enjoy as is or add sliced avocado and sprouts.

Use miso as an ingredient in marinades for meat, fish, poultry or game.

Carry dried miso soup packets with you and enjoy them as a pick-me-up coffee substitute.

Combine a little miso with olive oil, flax seed oil, ginger and garlic to make an Asian-inspired dressing that can be used on salads or cold grain dishes.

Safety

Allergic Reactions to Miso

Although allergic reactions can occur to virtually any food, research studies on food allergies consistently report more problems with some foods than with others.

Common symptoms associated with an allergic reaction to food include: chronic gastrointestinal disturbances; frequent infections, e.g. ear infections, bladder infections, bed-wetting; asthma, sinusitis; eczema, skin rash, acne, hives; bursitis, joint pain; fatigue, headache, migraine; hyperactivity, depression, insomnia.

Individuals who suspect food allergy as an underlying factor in their health problems may want to avoid commonly allergenic foods. Soybeans and products such as miso that are made from soybeans are among the foods most commonly associated with allergic reactions.

Other foods commonly associated with allergic reactions include: cow's milk, wheat, shrimp, oranges, eggs, chicken, strawberries, tomato, spinach, peanuts, pork, corn and beef.. These foods do not need to be eaten in their pure, isolated form in order to trigger an adverse reaction.

For example, yogurt made from cow’s milk is also a common allergenic food, even though the cow’s milk has been processed and fermented in order to make the yogurt. Ice cream made from cow’s milk would be an equally good example.

Soybeans, and foods made from soybeans such as miso, contain goitrogens, naturally-occurring substances in certain foods that can interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland. Individuals with already existing and untreated thyroid problems may want to avoid miso for this reason.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System.

Miso (Soybean)
1.00 oz
70.81 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
tryptophan 0.05 g 15.6 4.0 very good
manganese 0.30 mg 15.0 3.8 very good
protein 4.06 g 8.1 2.1 good
zinc 1.14 mg 7.6 1.9 good
copper 0.15 mg 7.5 1.9 good
dietary fiber 1.86 g 7.4 1.9 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

In Depth Nutritional Profile for Miso

References

  • Baggott JE, et al. Effect of Miso (Japanese Soybean Paste) and NaCl on DMBA-Induced Rat Mammary Tumors. Nutrition and Cancer 14:103-09, 1990.
  • Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986.
  • Fortin, Francois, Editorial Director. The Visual Foods Encyclopedia. Macmillan, New York.
  • Wood, Rebecca. The Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Press; 1988.

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