The health benefits of miso

This protein-rich paste made from fermented soybeans is a staple of Asian cuisine. Nutritionist Jo Lewin explains what makes miso a healthy ingredient and how to use it in cooking...

The health benefits of... miso

An introduction to miso

Miso means ‘fermented beans’ in Japanese. In Japan, people begin their day with a bowl of miso soup, believed to stimulate digestion and energise the body. A traditional ingredient in Japanese and Chinese diets, miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and grains and contains millions of beneficial bacteria. There are hundreds of different types of miso and different versions are linked with regional cuisines, identities and flavours.

The protein-rich paste is highly popular as it provides an instant flavour foundation. It adds the fifth taste, known as ‘umami’, to all sorts of dishes including soups/broths, salad dressings, vegetables, stews, glazes, and marinades.

Miso is rich in essential minerals and a good source of various B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid. As a fermented food, miso provides the gut with beneficial bacteria that help us to stay healthy, vibrant and happy; good gut health is known to be linked to our overall mental and physical wellness.

Read more about probiotics and how diet affects gut health.

Different varieties

The most common type of miso is made from only soybeans, but the variety and ratio of raw ingredients can vary. Some miso pastes are made from cultured wheat or millet or combinations of different grains and beans. The length of fermentation time can affect the flavour; ranging from sweet and mild to salty and rich. The colour is a fairly good indicator of the strength in flavour. The texture can vary too. Miso made from a wholegrain is typically saltier than that made from a hulled grain.

White Miso (Shiro)

Made from soybeans and rice and fermented for no longer than two months. Shiro (means “white” in Japanese) is light in colour and sweet to mildly salty. Shiro is a great gateway miso, very versatile and provides a bit of oomph to salad dressings or sautéed vegetables.

Yellow Miso (Shinsu)

Another mild type that is fermented for slightly longer than white miso. Yellow miso is adaptable in a wide range of recipes.

Red Miso (Aka)

If a recipe calls for dark miso, you’ll want to use an aka or red miso. Russet in colour, this type is made from a higher proportion of soybeans, is fermented for up to three years, and is saltier and deeper in flavour. Its full flavour is best used in hearty dishes like stews and tomato sauces. Use with caution - its flavour can over-power other ingredients.

Barley Miso (Mugi)

Made from barley and soybeans, mugi miso usually has a longer fermentation process than most white miso. It has a strong barley aroma, but is still mild and slightly sweet in flavour.

Nutritional highlights

  • Miso is a source of copper, manganese, vitamin K, protein, and zinc.
  • The fermentation process means that miso is rich in enzymes. Fermentation enhances the number of beneficial bacteria in the food. These bacteria are known as probiotics and are thought to help a wide range of health issues, especially for digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients. 
  • By consuming fermented foods you are adding beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) and enzymes to your overall intestinal flora, increasing the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system and enhancing the immune system.
  • Studies in 1997 and 2013 have shown that beneficial bacteria synthesise vitamins in the gut, primarily vitamin K and vitamin B12, as a by-product of their metabolism.
  • Miso is considered to be high in salt and should be consumed with the guidelines of no more than 6g per day in mind.  
  • There is much research on the benefits of including soy products in the diet. Although miso is made from soy beans, the quantity consumed is quite small and unlikely to have a profound oestrogenic effect.
  • Soy products are widely produced from genetically modified (GM) soybeans. To make sure miso is made from organically grown, not genetically modified soy beans, make sure to read the label. The label will also indicate if the miso is gluten free. 

How to select and store

When buying miso, choose the unpasteurised, live, enzyme-rich product that will need to be stored in the fridge. This type is loaded with beneficial microorganisms. After opening, the texture, colour and flavour may change so keep an eye on it. Some can be kept for quite a long time without any concerns or variations to quality.

Recipe suggestions

Miso soup can provide a tasty base to add other ingredients:
Miso chicken & rice soup
Salmon with miso vegetables

Miso makes a delicious marinade:
Miso-marinated salmon
Miso-glazed tofu steaks with beansprout salad & egg strands

It can also be used to add depth and distinctive flavour to vegetable dishes:
Miso aubergines
Saucy miso mushrooms with udon noodles
 

Read more...

Digestive health recipes and tips
What are probiotics and what do they do?
How does diet affect gut health?
All our health benefits guides


This article was last reviewed on 26th September 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
 

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lowlinkage
18th Jan, 2017
You say that one of the reasons Miso is good for you is because of the beneficial gut bacteria. Do they get killed by cooking? We are told, afterall, that cooking thoroughly kills the bacteria on raw chicken, for example. So should we be eating the miso "raw" in order to benefit from the bacteria? Thanks
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
6th Feb, 2017
Thanks for your question. When making a soup, it is best to add the miso at the end, once the pan has been taken off the heat to preserve the nutritional qualities. Another idea is to use miso in a salad dressing as that way it is not heated and the benefits are preserved.
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