Soy and soy-derived products are heavily debated in the health industry. And while some soy foods have studied health benefits, there are also many downsides depending on who’s consuming it (read this post to learn more). So, are all soy products bad?
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed fermented soy foods like tempeh and miso. And, when I was following a stricter Paleo diet, I wondered ‘Is miso Paleo-friendly? Could I still have it in my diet?’. I did some research and decided that I would still include fermented soy in moderation. Here, I explain why I include miso in my diet along with my favourite ways to use miso in cooking.
Having read a lot about processed soy products and the havoc they can cause in our bodies – read this and this and this – I naturally try to avoid too much of them. There are, however, a few soy-based ingredients, which pass my nutritional acceptance test. These are naturally fermented soy foods such as tempeh, natto and miso and soy sauce.
Fermented Soy: Nutrition
The reason these particular soy products are not as harmful as tofu or soy milk is that they are produced through a fermentation process, which makes them easier to digest and reduces the number of present anti-nutrients such as phytates and lectins. Fermented foods also contain beneficial bacteria, which are great for gut health and microbiome diversity.
Foods such as miso and tempeh are rather healthy and nutritious: great sources of probiotics, high levels of isoflavones (cancer preventative compounds), a good amount of protein (especially tempeh), minerals and vitamins (especially Vitamin K in miso and B12 in tempeh).
An important thing to remember about fermented soy products like miso or soy sauce is that you rarely have to use a lot of them. The flavour is so concentrated that a tablespoon here and there is all you really need, and in such small amounts, the harmful effects of soy are simply negligible unless you are particularly sensitive to it.
At the end of the day, consuming fermented soy is a personal choice, but so far I have found more pros than cons.
Let’s chat about miso because I really like it as an ingredient. I think most of you are familiar with miso as it’s easily obtainable from Asian grocers and health food stores and you might have at some stage eaten miso soup at a Japanese restaurant.
So, What Is Miso?
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning – usually, a paste – that is made from fermented soybeans, salt, koji (this is a fungus that acts as a starting culture) and other ingredients such as rice, barley or buckwheat.
Miso has a very complex flavour – savoury and rich – often described as umami (also known as the fifth taste after salty, sweet, sour and bitter). Basically, it makes food taste yummy and hearty, and of course salty.
Unlike ordinary table salt, studies have shown that miso doesn’t have the same negative impact on blood pressure (something to do with proteins and fermentation). It’s still high in sodium but it’s definitely a more nutritious way to season your food.
Types Of Miso
There are many varieties of miso depending on key ingredients and the length of fermentation. Some of the most popular varieties are hatcho (only soy), ganmai (soy and brown rice), kome (soy and white rice), mugi (soy and barley, I would avoid this if you’re gluten-free), natto (soy and ginger) and soba (soy and buckwheat). Wikipedia has a long list!
Lighter coloured miso pastes indicate shorter fermentation time and have a sweeter, less salty taste; while darker, richer colours and saltier, more concentrated flavour that comes from longer fermentation. The darker ones are usually considered more nutritious.
Miso has a strong, salty taste, which means that you only need to use a small amount to flavour a dish or a soup. I always look for non-GMO, gluten-free, organic varieties of miso. And of course, it should be unpasteurized (found in the refrigerated section of the store rather than in the dry pantry goods). Otherwise, all that beneficial, live bacteria that we are after are no longer present. Organic and traditional miso is not usually pasteurised.
If you see miso dash iri on the label that means that this miso is for making miso soup and has an addition of dashi or broth. Some miso may contain monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives, so make sure to read the label.
How To Store Miso
As fresh miso is a living food, it should be stored in a refrigerator after opening. It contains a lot of salt so it will last in the fridge for many months. Make sure to use a clean spoon every time you use miso, as to prevent any foreign bacteria contamination.
Using Miso In The Kitchen
Another thing about miso is that it’s best used uncooked or only just cooked or heated as to protect its valuable live cultures. I use miso a few times a month, mainly to season sauces or to make my miso butter, in salad dressings, in dishes like miso eggplant (see below) and to add to soups right at the end.
I like to have a bowl or a mug of simple miso broth with some seaweed and spring onions on a cold day as a snack or after a sweaty workout. It’s great to bring on a hiking trip along with a Jetboil or in a Thermos.
Image from Flickr by Adacito
Ways You Could Use Miso Paste:
- Mix half a teaspoon of miso with some butter to melt over a piece of grilled steak or fish.
- Or, make a batch of my miso butter so you can make these baked sweet potatoes.
- Stir a little miso paste into salad dressings.
- Add it your chicken soup or bone broth at the end of cooking.
- Add a little miso to dips such as a nut-based hummus or a variation of eggplant babaganush.
- Mix with a little water and add to stir-fries right at the end.
- Add some miso paste to your sweet or cauliflower mashed potato.
- Mix with a little water and add to scrambled eggs right at the end.
My Favourite Miso Eggplant Recipe
Inspired by the Japanese miso eggplant, this healthy and delicious recipe features, soft, creamy oven-roasted eggplant topped with umami-rich tomato miso sauce. SOOO good, it’s like a flavour explosion in your mouth. Check out the recipe here.
Hey Irina, do you know where to find unpasteurised, soy-only miso? The best type I can find in my area is with brown rice, which of course is not ideal. Also, great tips and recipe, thanks!
Hey Irena, do you know where to find unpasteurised, soy-only miso? The best type I can find in my area is with brown rice, which of course is not ideal. Also, great tips and recipe, thanks!
Hey Gaby, I wouldn’t worry too much about brown rice as most of the nutrients such as lectins and phytates are destroyed during fermentation. I would mainly avoid any with gluten so no barley. There is a miso producer near Sydney in the Blue Mountains http://bluemountainsmiso.com.au/ and this is the one I used a lot http://www.spiralfoods.com.au/products/organic-genmai-0?cat=49 and they seem to also have the soy only organic one, if you really want to avoid rice as the ingredient.
Spiral Foods are often stocked at health food stores, I would look for the miso in the cold section. You could shoot them an email to see where they stock it near you. Irena
Hey Gaby, have you tried Alfalfa House? They usually have two kinds, and might be able to get other kinds if they know there is interest.
I love miso and despite being Paleo I do still use it occasionally – I figure, being fermented that a lot of the harmful effects of the soy have been mediated.
I most often use it in the form of miso soup for a quick lunch. But I am going to try your eggplant recipe.
Nice looking recipe. Egg plants are something that I haven’t really grown up with, so not to many tasty recipes in my head. Thanks for sharing. Will definitely give it a go. Being a bit of a heathen, I imagine to be extra yummy with some melted cheese. mmmmm
What a great looking recipe! I love eggplant and your sauce looks delicious!
I was interested in your site, but confused as to why there is a lite’n’easy ad???
Unfortunately, I can’t control some of the ads that are showing up as they are served by Google’s Adsense. If I spot an ad that doesn’t fit my website I can block it but as I don’t spend every minute on my site I often don’t see what shows up. I will keep an eye on that one! Thanks
what a genius way to cook aubergines! That way they won’t soak up so much oil! This is a really great recipe.
Omg, my favorite miso of alllll time is South River Miso. They are organic, well water, and completely unfiltered plus low in sodium. Miso can be super high but their blends have anywhere from 150-180 grams and average miso is closer to 700-1000 mgs. X_x I swear by them and my favorite one form them is the healing Dandelion Leek Miso with Nettles, GF! All of their miso are GF besides the millet and barley ones and they even have some soy free azuki bean and chick pea. I’m contemplating buying some Koji from them and making my own miso since generally the only time I consume legumes or rice is ahh… miso… considering the Koji is rice.. I was wonderin if there would be a Paleo friendly option for creating miso. I thought about cauliflower or eggplant ad the base but… not sure how that would go… any ideas?
What about soy sauce?
Also, what about using the same argument about sprouted or fermented grains or other beans?
You could use the same argument for those except that you would normally eat max 1 tablespoon of miso in one meal, and probably not just 1 tablespoon of fermented grains or beans. For the soy sauce, I prefer tamari sauce which is gluten-free fermented soy sauce. My general stand point is that sprouted and fermented grains and legumes are definitely a lot easier to digest and have less negative effects than regularly prepared stuff. It really comes down to HOW MUCH of it you eat. If you’re watching your carbohydrate intake or if you have serious auto-immune conditions, then I would be limiting even the sprouted/fermented grains and legumes. If your digestion is fairly healthy and you need a few extra carbs, then sprouted grains and legumes (especially the gluten-free options) are decent additions to the diet. It’s a personal choice and I encourage everyone to experiment to see what works for them.
Lovely summary, but just wanted to flag that while tempeh might be fermented, you can’t eat it raw. I suspect all the probiotics die in the heating process as a result, so I don’t see it being superior to tofu…
I am not against soya milk and tofu however, I think the danger might be in isolated soya, such as soy protein, rather than a liquid made from soya beans, whether fermented or not, it’s still a plant after all. I live in Britain though, so I guess/hope the soya beans are more trustworthy here too.
The fermentation of tempeh makes it easier to digest and breaks down some of the antinutrients, plus enhances the present nutrients. This remains even after the tempeh is cooked.