The Health Benefits and Uses of Miso

An unassuming superfood, miso can boost nutrition in savory dishes and is likely to become your next made-at-home secret ingredient.

| January/February 2019

  • Miso is a centuries-old ingredient that originated in China, eventually making its way to Japan.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/jedi-master
  • Koji, rice or barley impregnated with "Aspergillus oryzae" culture, is fermented with mashed soybeans to make miso.
    Photo by Getty Images/gyro
  • Depending on its fermentation period and ratio of ingredients, miso color can range from lighter, sweeter misos to darker, stronger misos.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Tsuboya
  • Miso can be added as savory flavoring to dishes such as soups, stews, broths, and dressings.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Crisferra

Analyzed in health communities, treasured for its fifth-taste flavor, and at times incorporated into recipes without knowing its entire potential, miso — a salty, slightly sweet brown paste of fermented pulses — is a food steadily garnering attention. It originated in China and was adopted by Japanese cooks hundreds of years ago, where dozens of different varieties are now produced in various regions, in ways similar to how other cultures produce regional wines or cheeses.

Most miso is made from soybeans, which are cooked, mashed, and fermented with grains of rice or barley that have been impregnated with the Aspergillus oryzae culture. These grains are known as koji and are the basis of several Japanese ingredients, including traditional soy sauce. The savory flavor produced by the culture is known as “umami,” or “the fifth taste.” A highly sought-after component of Asian cuisine, umami is created by the formation of glutamate during the fermentation process.

Different types of miso are made by varying ingredient proportions and fermentation times. The types can be split roughly into two categories: stronger-tasting, darker misos and lighter, sweeter ones. The richer misos are used to flavor soups and stews, while the paler, less powerful misos are ideal for dips, dressings, and lighter broths.

Miso for Health

Miso’s flavor isn’t the only attractive thing about this paste; it’s also believed to have a number of health benefits. Unpasteurized miso (miso that hasn’t been heat-treated) contains a mixture of probiotics and enzymes that promote beneficial microorganisms in the gut.

This effect may, in turn, strengthen the immune system, since around 70 percent of it resides in the gut.

Though some of it is still developing, research continues into the health benefits of miso. It has been found to contain antioxidants, which help promote cellular health and may reduce the inflammation that can be a root cause of many health problems. One study found that miso’s antioxidants scavenged free radicals, the unstable molecules found in our bodies that can damage cell membranes.

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