Soy sauce is ubiquitous with Asian food, found in almost every culture and dish. Many European and American dishes include it for the umami or rich meaty taste.
But, is it as healthy as it seems?
You might be surprised to learn that the soy sauce you have might not actually be real soy sauce. Like many foods, companies found a way to make it cheaper, faster… and unhealthy.
What Is Soy Sauce? And The #1 Reason What You Have In Your Fridge Isn't Real Soy Sauce
Authentic soy sauce is a fermented soy product. It originated in China over 3,000 years ago and spread throughout Asia. It's a basic fermentation of soy, wheat, salt, and specific molds and yeasts. Usually, it can take a few months to several years to properly develop a good soy sauce.
During the fermentation process, the molds and yeasts gradually break down the proteins, creating lactic acid, alcohol, and simple sugars. The specific mix of soy, wheat and molds and yeast produce different flavors.
Authentic soy sauce only uses natural fermentation. They're often labeled naturally brewed and the ingredient list will only have water, wheat, soy, and salt (although it might list the mold and yeasts used).
Where things go bad…
Most soy sauce in the grocery store is not fermented soy sauce. It's created by a chemical method known as acid hydrolysis, taking the process from months or years to simply days. A mix of hydrochloric acid and oxygen breaks down the proteins, and then color, flavor, and salt get added.
You'll find this labeled with hydrolyzed soy protein or hydrolyzed vegetable protein.
The Problem With Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is very high in salt, with a single serving of one tablespoon providing nearly half your daily amount of salt.
But, naturally produce soy sauce doesn't have many other negatives. In fact, there are health benefits to naturally fermented soy sauce.
On the other hand, chemically created soy sauce isn't healthy. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is often added to soy sauce to give it the umami flavor. Even though MSG is a natural by-product of fermented soy sauce, it's at much lower levels, with buffers and enzymes to negate its effect.
Many of the colorings and flavor additives added to chemically created soy sauce are carcinogenic - particularly caramel color, which gives it the dark brown/black shade. Drinking a can of dark soda and consuming one tablespoon of soy sauce contributes enough caramel coloring to exceed the upper limit for daily intake.
The chemical processing produces various amines, such as tyramine and histamine. As a result, many people feel headaches, sweating, or itching after eating foods made with chemically produced soy sauce, which is the most common ones found at chain restaurants. That's due to the histamine content, causing people to react as if they're having an allergic attack.
Plus, people who take MAOIs should avoid chemically produced soy sauce because the MAOIs react negatively to tyrosine.
When You Get Real Soy Sauce, It Can Be a Benefit To Your Gut
Natural soy sauce has health benefits.
In complete contrast to the chemical soy sauce, one study showed that people who took real soy sauce saw a reduction in their allergies. Many foods that naturally produce histamines also create antihistamines, which can help reduce overall reactions.
Naturally fermented soy sauce may not contain any probiotics anymore but have prebiotic nutrients that aid digestion. Many of the enzymes are still present. This can help your gut bacteria.
Some of the polysaccharide sugars found in soy sauce help improve the immune system. Although more studies are needed to verify the results,
Several of the metabolites from the fermentation process have been studied for their anti-cancer effect. Occasionally using good soy sauce is not enough to say soy sauce is cancer-protective, but it is beneficial.
If You Can't Find A Good Soy Sauce, Try This Instead
More grocery stores now carry higher-end products, and you may be able to find a naturally fermented soy sauce in your local store. Most Asian grocery stores carry a natural soy sauce or you can order online. However, it is more expensive because the process takes a longer time to make and most of it still comes from Asia.
If you're looking for a good substitute, take a look at amino acid flavoring sauces. This gets a similar texture and flavor profile as soy sauce, without the allergens of soy, wheat, or any of the chemical additives.
If you really like soy sauce, check out some of the better fermented ones. You can find gluten-free ones (Tamari), and minimal soy ones (Shiro). There are multiple different flavors and textures that come with naturally fermented products. It can give you a wide variety of culinary experiences that will tickle your senses and improve your health.