Most know miso as the salty, warming soup that precedes a sushi dinner. But what, exactly,is miso—other than a surprisingly nutritious superfood?
Generally speaking, it’s a Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans, grains, or barley soybeans and—most often—processed into a paste. Though miso is easiest to find in paste form, it comes in liquid and powder versions too. Miso paste looks a little bit like hummus in consistency and color (although the hue can range from beige to reddish). No matter the form, miso tastes a little salty and nutty, and very distinctive.
That unmistakable savory, umami flavor comes from the fermentation process—and so do miso’s health benefits, for that matter. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha all contribute to creating a healthier gut microbiome. The naturally occurring bacteria that live in the stomach, small, and large intestine—what’s commonly referred to as “the gut”—help break down food, contribute to nutrient absorption, and keep digestion running smoothly. There’s also evidence that a healthy gut affects other areas of the body and can influence mood, weight, energy levels, and even mental health.
When it ferments, miso forms the healthy bacteria cultures that contribute to better gut health. That being said, not all forms of miso include probiotics, so it’s important to rely on multiple food and supplement sources to get your daily dose.
The soybeans used to make miso also come with health benefits, although the ingredient itself is controversial. Nearly 85 percent of soybeans in the United States are genetically modified, and soy allergies are fairly common. But there’s a bright side: Soy miso has been linked to the prevention of breast and colon cancer. A recent study from Japan also revealed that soy miso scavenges free radicals and inhibits lipid peroxidation—this means that miso essentially acts as an antioxidant and prevents free radical damage in healthy cells. By blocking free radicals, miso prevents side effects of damage that include everything from signs of premature aging on skin to cancer.
Want to give it a try? Miso soup is so simple to make, especially with freeze-dried version you can find at Thrive Market. But with its one-of-a-kind flavor, miso also makes a great addition to dressings, sauces, and marinades.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho