Upon catching a virus, you likely treat symptoms with conventional medicine. However, equally vital is rebuilding your immunity. To that end, this savory cultured food is a strong ally. Here’s how to use this potent seasoning and where to find miso in the grocery store.
So, what is miso exactly? Translating the word reveals the answer. “Miso” is Japanese for “fermented beans”. Japan is the main source of the world’s supply. Typically, native Japanese have it in the morning to rouse their energy and digestion.
The key ingredients are cooked soybeans, saltwater, and a fermenting agent called “koji”. Miso producers may add a grain to the mixture, such as millet, barley, or rice. Each grain imparts a unique flavor to the cultured soybeans.
Koji is a food-grade fungus that’s safe for us to consume. The enzymes in koji digest the starches and proteins in foods, enhancing their taste. This enzymatic process is called “fermentation”. The culturing time varies, spanning from a few weeks to three years.
In turn, fermentation length determines the flavor. The longer miso “ages”, the more it’s color and taste intensify. Textures vary too, from smooth to chunky.
Since soybeans are a primary component of miso, it’s also called soybean paste, pictured here.
Miso, pronounced mee-so, brims with good bacteria that fend off viruses and other infectious germs. Such beneficial microbes are termed “probiotics”. The zinc in miso ushers healing, while B vitamins reduce tension.
Moreover, nutrients called antioxidants rev the production of certain immune cells. Natural killer cells and T cells, for example, destroy viruses. B cells generate antibodies, specialized proteins that seize and neutralize germs.
Study-Proven Immune Power
Peptides are one type of antioxidant in miso. A 2012 study presented in Nutrition found that soybean peptides activate immune cells. Furthermore, they ease responses to stress.
In 2018, Japanese researchers isolated a bacterial strain in miso that stimulates both T cells and B cells! The scientists concluded that this microbial species, Tetragenococcus halophilus, is a powerful immune-boosting agent. The study findings appear in the scientific journal PLOS One.
The Japanese describe the flavor of miso as “umami”, meaning savory and satisfying. In large part, credit goes to koji. Its enzymes release glutamate, a type of protein unit, or “amino acid”. Glutamate imparts umami to various foods. Among them are miso and mushrooms.
Hundreds of miso varieties exist! Still, the most commonly sold types are white, yellow, red, barley, mixed, and hatcho, described below.
The color of this paste is light beige. White variety comes from soybeans and rice, fermented for two months at most. Since it is nutty and mildly sweet, it’s also called “mellow” or “sweet” miso. Accordingly, it’s lower in salt than other miso varieties. White miso has a soft, creamy texture.
Best culinary options: Use it in soups, dips, salad dressings, and light sauces. You can also swap it for dairy in mashed potatoes.
This variety, aged for about a year, is light brown to golden in color. Yellow miso results from culturing soybeans and barley, yielding a somewhat earthy, acidic flavor.
Best culinary options: Add yellow miso to soups and glazes.
Introducing yellow miso’s older cousin! It’s also made from soybeans and barley, although fermented longer. This barley miso tastes strongly earthy and looks like chocolate fudge.
Best culinary options: Since the flavor is bold, use the barley variety for stews rather than soup.
The saltiest type, red miso ages for up to three years. The long fermentation creates a firm texture and rich color — dark red or reddish-brown. This variety comes mostly from soybeans and a smattering of grain, such as barley. As its flavor is slightly bitter, use red miso sparingly.
Best culinary options: Hearty braises, stews, marinades, and sauces, such as tomato. Red variety also complements “meaty vegetables” like mushrooms and eggplant.
If you shop at Asian markets, you may see mixed miso, labeled “awase”. This kind blends two or more varieties, cultured for about a year. Often combined are red and white varieties, creating a dark brown hue.
Are you on a gluten-free diet? If so, consider soybean miso, made from soybeans only. However, it can still contact glutinous grains during processing. Therefore, if you’re sensitive to gluten, look for the words “gluten-free” on the packaging.
Soybean miso is a deep burgundy, having aged for three years. Its texture is thick and chunky, best for stews and root vegetables.
Miso is high in sodium, averaging 630 milligrams (mg) per tablespoon. For the sake of our blood pressure and heart, we should ingest no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily. Even better is capping our sodium intake at 1,500 mg per day, per the American Heart Association.
So, if your doctor wants you to cut back on salt, obtain their consent before trying miso. Perhaps they’ll approve a reduced-salt product. Later in this article, we recommend three lower-sodium brands.
Miso can interfere with the action of blood thinners, thyroid medications, and certain antidepressants. If you take any of these medicines, speak with your primary care doctor or pharmacist before consuming it.
Protecting the Probiotics
When shopping for miso, look for unpasteurized brands, as noted on package labels. Unpasteurized miso isn’t heat-treated, keeping its good bacteria viable. For this reason, you must refrigerate the unpasteurized version.
Conversely, shelf-stable miso is pasteurized, killing all possible bacteria with heat to prevent spoilage. As a result, the pasteurized version lacks probiotics and doesn’t confer immunity.
Ideally, use raw miso rather than cooking it. However, if you want to flavor cooked dishes with it, avoid subjecting the paste to high heat. Instead, add it after cooking is done, when the food is cool enough to taste. Otherwise, you’ll lose the live bacteria that overpower infectious germs.
Note also that heat kills the enzymes, impairing its digestion and nutrient availability. Plus, boiling miso weakens its tangy taste.
Identifying Miso Types
Package labels may feature English or Japanese words for miso types. To help you discern the different kinds, here are the Japanese names for the above varieties, along with their English equivalents:
- shiro – white
- shinshu – yellow
- aka – red
- mugi – barley
- awase – mixed
- hatcho or mame – soybean
Various companies market their products as miso, soybean paste, or miso paste. You’ll find it packaged in plastic tubs, glass jars, or standing pouches.
Where to Buy Miso
The average supermarket keeps miso in their produce department. Typically, it’s near the refrigerated soy cheese, tofu, and lunch meat substitutes. If absent, head to the coolers in the natural foods department. As of this writing, supermarket chains that carry it include ShopRite, Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, Publix, and Whole Foods.
Since shelf-stable miso is pasteurized, we don’t recommend it. However, if you prefer its storage convenience, check the International Foods aisle, provided a grocer has one. In that case, look for shelf-stable miso among the Japanese soup mixes and condiments.
At Asian grocers, you’ll find miso in the refrigerators. Independent health food stores also stock this ingredient. Again, look in the refrigerator cases, among the tofu and non-dairy cheese. If you don’t see it, ask the staff for where to locate miso. For the widest variety of shelf-stable and perishable, shop online.
Note: Be sure to check the “Sell-By” dates on packaging, forgoing miso that will expire soon.
High-Quality Miso Brands
While scanning the miso shelves, look for organic brands or those labeled “Non-GMO”. In both cases, you’ll avoid genetically modified soybeans. We won’t delve into the pros and cons of GMOs here, but you can read about them in this article. If you want to avoid genetically modified organisms, rest assured that organic foods are GMO-free.
If you can’t find organic miso in grocery stores, choose products with short ingredient lists and no preservatives. Also, avoid monosodium glutamate, abbreviated MSG. This flavoring causes headaches and migraines in people prone to them. Here are other names for MSG that appear on food labels.
Below are 4 pure and organic brands of miso. The Hikari product is both organic and gluten-free:
- Hikari Organic Miso Paste, White
- Eden Foods Certified Organic Mugi Miso
- Maruya Organic Red Hatcho Miso
- Ranch Organic Aka Miso Paste
The following miso brands are organic and lower in sodium than most:
- Miko Brand Organic Sweet Miso, Light Sodium
- Cold Mountain Light Yellow Miso, Gluten-Free
- Miso Master Certified Gluten-Free, Organic Miso – Mellow White and Sweet White varieties
Generally, prices for organic miso range from $9.19 to $24 for 16 ounces. It tends to cost less at Asian grocers.
Although it may seem expensive, a serving size is just two teaspoons. Since the portion is small, one pound of miso yields about 40 servings. So, even if you pay $24 for a pound, each serving costs only 63 cents. Accordingly, this is an economic food choice.
After opening a container of miso, cover the surface with plastic wrap. This strategy prevents discoloration from contacting air, known as “oxidation”. Then, re-seal the container and keep it refrigerated. Whenever you remove some miso, replace the plastic wrap and close the package tightly.
Generally, light-colored varieties keep for roughly nine months. The dark variety should stay fresh for about a year.
Follow the lead of the Japanese. Take a daily dose of miso. Unpasteurized brands confer live probiotics and antioxidants, warring against viruses on your behalf. Empower your immune cells!