Finding Healthy Soy Sauce: The Good, Bad, and Very Ugly

by Kaayla T. Daniel The Naughty NutritionistComments: 89

How to choose a quality soy sauce.

By Kaayla T. Daniel PhD, The Naughty Nutritionist

Soy sauce, also commonly known as shoyu, is the best known flavor enhancer in Asian cooking. Made the old-fashioned way — through a careful fermentation process that can take as long as 18 months — it’s a healthy and nourishing product.

The best quality, truly healthy soy sauce is not only fermented in a traditional manner but also unpasteurized to retain beneficial enzymes and nutritional cofactors.

Tamari is a variant that is made only with soybeans (without any wheat). As far as I know, all the brands of tamari and most brands of shoyu sold in health food stores have been pasteurized. Though not optimal, these are far superior to the commercial soy sauces sold in supermarkets and used by the restaurant industry.

The Scary Truth About How Commercial Soy Sauce is Made

The most common soy sauces sold in supermarkets and served at the majority of restaurants are made in two days or less. Here’s how they do it.

If you really love your Chinese takeaway, you might want to sit down for this.

Soybean meal and often corn starches are rapidly reduced to their component amino acids using a high-tech process known as “rapid hydrolysis” or “acid hydrolysis,” which involves heating defatted soy proteins with eighteen percent hydrochloric acid for 8 to 12 hours, then neutralizing the brew with sodium carbonate. The result is a dark brown liquid — a chemical soy sauce.

When mixed with some genuine fermented soy sauce to improve its flavor and odor, it is called a “semi chemical” soy sauce. Sugars, caramel colorings and other flavorings are added before further refinement, pasteurization and bottling.

The rapid hydrolysis method uses the enzyme glutamase as a reactor. This creates large amounts of an unnatural form of glutamic acid that closely resembles that found in MSG. In contrast, production of genuine old-fashioned soy sauce uses the enzyme glutaminase to form naturally occurring glutamic acid.

Other undesirables that appear during chemical hydrolysis are levulinic and formic acids, instead of beneficial lactic acid, and the gas produces dimethyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and furfurol from the amino acid methionine. The hydrolysis process also results in total destruction of the beneficial and essential amino acid tryptophan.

Modern soy sauces may also contain dangerous levels of chemicals known as chloropropanols, which are produced when soy sauce production is sped up using acid hydrolyation methods. In Great Britain, back in 2001, nearly 25 percent of commercial soy sauces were found to contain dangerous levels of these chemicals, and the products were recalled.

The Australia New Zealand Food Authority also recalled commercial soy sauces for this reason. No recalls occurred in the United States, but because most modern companies use some form of this method and exercise less than-perfect quality control, the safety of commercial soy sauces cannot be assured.

Researchers have also found furanones in commercial soy sauce. These are mutagenic to bacteria and cause DNA damage in lab tests. Salsolinol, a neurotoxin linked to DNA damage and chromosomal aberrations, Parkinson’s disease and cancer, has been identified in soy sauce.

Ethyl carbamate — also linked to cancer– is found in commercial samples of soy sauce, miso and some alcoholic beverages. The maximum concentrations observed were 73 mcg per kg in soy sauce compared to the tiny amount of 7.9 mcg per kg found in miso.

Don’t Use Commercial Soy Sauce if on MAOI Drugs

Soy sauce also contains a high content of the amino acid tyramine, a potent precursor of mutagens produced by nitrites. The tyramine content makes this product unsuitable for people taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) drugs, which are commonly prescribed for depression, migraines and high blood pressure.

The best known tyramine rich foods are aged cheeses, red wines, smoked and pickled herring and beer. Eating any of these foods — including tyramine rich soy sauce — while taking MAOI drugs can bring on an episode of high blood pressure accompanied by severe headache, palpitations and nausea.

Healthy Soy Sauce – Possible Only If You Get the Good Stuff

So for truly healthy soy sauce, get the genuine old fashioned fermented raw stuff.

Less optimal but still fine for most people are small amounts of health food store brand, pasteurized tamari and shoyu.

Avoid Soy Sauce Substitutes Like Liquid Aminos

Think a liquid aminos soy sauce substitute would be healthier?

Think again!

Liquid aminos are an unfermented liquid soy product invented by health food pioneer Paul Bragg and is a soy sauce alternative preferred by many health aficionados. Its main claim to fame has been a lower sodium content than tamari or shoyu. Given that salt has been unjustly maligned as unhealthy, this may not even be desirable.

In any case, lower sodium does not mean low, and the company responsible for manufacturing liquid aminos was warned in 1996 by the FDA that it’s “no salt” label was misleading and it’s “healthy” claim was unwarranted given its high sodium levels.

The company was also told to cease and desist using its “No MSG” claim. As a hydrolyzed protein, liquid aminos contain plenty of MSG produced as a residue of the hydrolyzing process. It also contains aspartic acid, another brain damaging excitotoxin, which is a component of aspartame as well.

The takeaway: No bragging rights for liquid aminos!

About the Author

dr kaayla danielKaayla T. Daniel, PhD, is the author of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food endorsed by leading health experts, including Drs Joseph Mercola, Larry Dossey, Kilmer S. McCully, Russell Blaylock and Doris J. Rapp.

Kaayla has been a guest on The Dr.Oz Show, PBS Healing Quest, NPR’s People’s Pharmacy, and many other shows.

Kaayla  is known as The Naughty Nutritionist because of her ability to outrageously and humorously debunk nutritional myths. You can find her on Facebook at facebook.com/DrKaaylaDaniel and subscribe to her edu-taining blog at drkaayladaniel.com.

 

Sources and More Information

Soy Lecithin:  Really So Unhealthy?

Estrogenic Foods Like Soy Trigger Precancerous Breasts

Is Your Egg Allergy Really a Soy Allergy in Disguise?

170 Scientific Reasons to Eliminate the Soy from Your Diet

Why Even Organic Soy Formula is So Dangerous for Babies

Comments (89)

  • jimmy

    I looked into these liquid amino acids as a low-salt replacement for soy sauce.
    I don’t know who’s lying, but these amino acids have as much sodium as soy sauce. Anyone needing to reduce their sodium intake can’t use this stuff.

    February 2nd, 2015 3:17 pm Reply
  • Morgon

    This is an old article so I am not sure if I’ll get a response or not, but I am allergic to soy but I have been able to eat “store bought” soy sauce with no issues. Does anyone know if getting the raw, unpasteurized kind makes it more likely to trigger my allergies? My reactions are tied to soy protein, because soy sauce, soy lecithin, and soy oil don’t bother me the same way (though I try to avoid the oil and lecithin anyway).

    November 15th, 2014 1:18 pm Reply
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  • Kelly Garrard Smith via Facebook

    This makes me thankful we use tamari.

    April 14th, 2014 3:19 pm Reply
  • Sarah Nissen via Facebook

    She mentioned Bragg’s in the article. No good either.

    April 13th, 2014 11:39 pm Reply
  • Ruth Mitchell via Facebook

    I use bragg’s liquid aminos

    April 13th, 2014 11:35 pm Reply
  • Angela Larusso-Lopez via Facebook

    Sandra K DeVaux read

    April 13th, 2014 11:33 pm Reply
  • Nicole Chenot via Facebook

    Tyramine is a natural chemical in food that develops more and more as time passes so if you are sensitive to it then you showed avoid fermented and aged foods, leaving leftovers for too long, meat that isn’t fresh from the farm or store. Cook your food and eat it right away. I found out that I am sensitive to this by taking a blood test called LEAP that sees what different foods and chemicals you are sensitive to and avoiding it has helped a ton with my headaches and migraines.

    April 13th, 2014 10:37 pm Reply
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  • Margaret Hong via Facebook

    Most soy sauce also contains wheat.

    April 13th, 2014 10:06 pm Reply
  • Rachel Krown via Facebook

    Coconut amnios is definitely the way to go! 😉

    April 13th, 2014 10:03 pm Reply
  • Tina Mackey via Facebook

    I use coconut amigos. Are those ok?

    April 13th, 2014 9:54 pm Reply
  • Kathryn Moody Becker via Facebook

    What ab Braggs soy sauce?

    April 13th, 2014 9:50 pm Reply
  • Jon Asef via Facebook

    8 Herbs and Massage to Get Rid of a Headache
    Read more: http://www.healthwantcare.com/8-herbs-and-massage-to-get-rid-of-a-headache/#ixzz2yoyEQU9J

    April 13th, 2014 9:47 pm Reply
  • Danielle Curry via Facebook

    If you read the article, it says Bragg’s liquid aminos are not healthy either.

    February 17th, 2014 5:47 am Reply
  • Barbara McDaniel via Facebook

    Braggs!!!!

    February 16th, 2014 10:31 pm Reply
  • Stanley West via Facebook

    Soy Sauce is a staple in our kitchen. in the last few months I changed from using country crock butter to real butter. even want to attempt making butter the way my late grandmother showed me. I’ll be shopping for the ohsawa raw soy sauce. It’s even Kosher!

    February 16th, 2014 5:26 pm Reply
  • Sara Grisham via Facebook

    I use an organic wheat free tamari, I buy the low sodium one but there is a regular one as well

    February 16th, 2014 3:15 pm Reply
  • Lindsey Elizabeth via Facebook

    Coconut aminos. No soy

    February 16th, 2014 2:37 pm Reply
  • Pamela Durfee via Facebook

    I make a low sodium substitute that to me tastes just as good on anything. Fresh and no preservatives :)

    February 16th, 2014 2:37 pm Reply
    • jimmy

      Regarding your low-salt substitute, would you mind sharing your recipe?
      thx

      February 2nd, 2015 3:18 pm Reply
  • Michelle

    Coconut Aminos from “Coconut Secret” is just aged “sap” and then some salt added. I use it with sushi and it’s fantastic.

    February 16th, 2014 2:19 pm Reply
  • Michelle Neitzel Spielman via Facebook

    Braggs aminos are fabulous and taste just like soy sauce

    February 16th, 2014 2:11 pm Reply
  • Tonya Landry Warfield via Facebook

    Lynn Bucalo

    February 16th, 2014 2:10 pm Reply
  • Danielle Pearce via Facebook

    Claire Furnival, Ellie Ashley xx

    February 16th, 2014 1:46 pm Reply
  • Krista Moyer

    There is one thing commercial soy sauce is good for and that is burns. Being a klutz in the kitchen, I’m always burning my hand, arm or fingers. My mother told me to rub soy sauce on the burn, and like magic it takes away the burning and it never blisters. I’ll keep it around for that purpose only, but buy the good stuff for consumption! Thanks for the information!

    July 20th, 2013 5:33 pm Reply
  • gogreen

    maybe one day this post will be useful for me

    July 16th, 2013 5:51 am Reply
  • Natasha

    I asked Sarah a few yrs ago about this since my husband is Vietnamese, we have easily switched over to the Oshawa and love it. Little hard to find here in MN, but can always order it at the links provided. Thanks for the great referral, we have been using it ever since :) The only bummer is when our neighbor comes to borrow it (often) because they don’t realize they just borrowed $10 worth!!! Love thy neighbor! They like it though and it opens up an opportunity to share about real food.

    July 11th, 2013 10:21 am Reply
  • Janette Emerson

    This is very informative. I usually buy commercialized soy sauce since I don’t know anything about the dangerous chemical content with those products. Now, I will buy pasteurized tamari and shoyu.

    July 10th, 2013 9:53 am Reply
    • Sharon Devi

      You mean to say: UN-pasteurized, right?

      July 11th, 2013 2:41 am Reply
  • Sherri

    Larry – the Shoyu soy sauce from Eden Food’s per their website states wheat in the ingredient list, yet also says it is gluten-free. Do you know how this is possible? I would love to find a traditional-brewed soy sauce that is gluten free. I gave up the “best” stuff years ago when I went GF. Thanks.

    July 9th, 2013 10:28 pm Reply
    • Wendy

      From things I’ve studied & observed, if it’s adequately fermented, any gluten it contains shouldn’t be a problem for MOST people with gluten problems.

      July 10th, 2013 1:11 pm Reply
  • Reena Graham

    so which brand is better or is good soy sauce.

    Can you let us know so we are eating the right stuff.

    That would be great. I have no clue as to how to choose the right one yet?

    July 9th, 2013 9:20 pm Reply
  • Lacey Cole via Facebook

    bummer.

    July 9th, 2013 9:18 pm Reply
  • beth

    Thanks for another great message. Good discussion, too. Please, though, be sure to check your grammar. Your phrase, “that it’s “no salt” label was misleading and it’s “healthy” claim was unwarranted given its high sodium levels,” utilizes the word “its” as a possessive three times, and it should not have an apostrophe in any of these instances. You got it right once in this sentence, but twice you had it wrong. “It’s” has one meaning, and one meaning only: it is a contraction for “it is.”

    July 9th, 2013 5:40 pm Reply
  • Heidi Morrison via Facebook

    So the liquid aminos I’m using are not good for you at all??!! Who do we believe or listen to anymore???

    July 9th, 2013 3:55 pm Reply
  • Shannon

    Why doesn’t the article mention that furanones have had some questionable results in lab testing, but they’ve also shown to have antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties as well. The article (which the author seems to have quoted verbatim) reads as follows:

    “The furanones which occur in foods are also mutagenic to bacteria and cause DNA damage in laboratory tests. However, these compounds are, in practice, *very effective anti-carcinogenic agents* in the diets of animals which are being treated with known cancer-inducing compounds such as benzo[alpha]pyrene or azoxymethane. Two of the food-derived furanones have antioxidant activity comparable to that of ascorbic acid.”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10466251

    I’m disappointed in this article on HEE. There are large gaps in the data — how can we simply accept that soy sauce is harmful because potential toxins have “been identified” in it when such things are said about coffee, sugar, carrots, and ginseng, among others? Shall we stop eating carrots, too? The author gives no scale of how much of these things are dangerous, nor test results proving people have had health concerns as a consequence of eating soy sauce in regular serving sizes.

    This is abuse of the authority we’ve allocated HEE, as far as I’m concerned.

    July 9th, 2013 2:57 pm Reply
  • Carmie

    I keep telling myself to be patient. It was unbelievably fast and easy to make my own from nothing but organic (non GMO) soybeans, Celtic Sea Salt and purified water. But, alas, that was last November and I have MANY months more to wait before I get to try it. (sigh)

    July 9th, 2013 2:30 pm Reply
  • Stan Maslowski via Facebook

    Thanks,been thinking that Chinese take out was causing a headache for years.Now it can be traced to those little packets.

    July 9th, 2013 1:30 pm Reply
  • Cheryl LaSarre Gaddis via Facebook

    I was just looking at the bottle I have. I’ll have to check out Eden Foods’ brand. Thanks.

    July 9th, 2013 12:59 pm Reply
  • Larry Underwood via Facebook

    Shoyu sauce is also gluten free…at least the Eden Foods’ brand I posted above is.

    July 9th, 2013 12:57 pm Reply
  • Larry Underwood via Facebook

    Christine, not true. It is gluten free (gluten is the problem with hybridized wheat) and verified non-GMO. It is certainly ‘good’ and good for you.

    July 9th, 2013 12:54 pm Reply
  • Karen Stefanski-pascale via Facebook

    thank you I was just investigating this last night as I was making sesame chicken….

    July 9th, 2013 12:46 pm Reply
  • Leila

    What about coconut amino acids?

    July 9th, 2013 12:29 pm Reply
  • Anna

    For those whose issue is gluten intolerance, please don’t think all tamari is gluten free/wheat free. Tamari USED to be wheat free, as the very word “tamari” means soy sauce without wheat. Now it is labeled “tamari” but it often is not wheat free. So, do not think all tamari is gluten free! Buy tamari labeled GF. In my experience, MOST tamari available in store shelves in the USA is made with wheat now.

    July 9th, 2013 12:23 pm Reply
  • Cheryl LaSarre Gaddis via Facebook

    I only use Shoyu sauce. Organic, unpasteurized soy sauce. Ingredients: organically grown soybeans, mountain spring water, organically grown whole wheat, sea salt. Loaded with probiotic-bacteria and living enzymes, naturally low in sodium, Certified Kosher. It’s delicious. Tamari sauce is good for those who want to avoid gluten.

    July 9th, 2013 12:04 pm Reply
  • three feathers

    well i’ll be a monkey’s uncle……was smugly thinking while reading this, “hmph, WE use braggs aminos…..then i come to the place where i find it’s not what i was led to believe it to be…..waaaah!

    good thing amazon.com and i have a close personal relationship HAHA

    thank you for the good, the bad and the ugly info you always edify me with ;0)

    July 9th, 2013 11:58 am Reply
  • Anastasia @ eco-babyz

    Great information and it’s also worth mentioning that most soy is GMO, which has huge health implications to begin with. Thanks for linking to the best one from organic soy beans and traditionally made :) I don’t use soy sauce, but that one looks great and actually worth buying!

    July 9th, 2013 11:50 am Reply
  • Crickett Grubb via Facebook

    we use Liquid Aminos from Braggs

    July 9th, 2013 11:36 am Reply
  • Frederica Huxley via Facebook

    pasteurization kills off all the bacteria and enzymes, effectively killing the food.

    July 9th, 2013 11:26 am Reply
  • April Michelle MacKay via Facebook

    go brags!!

    July 9th, 2013 11:24 am Reply
  • Rose Newton via Facebook

    Liquid Aminos tastes just like soy sauce! I have been using it for years and it is the best stuff ever~!

    July 9th, 2013 11:21 am Reply
  • Donald Mackey via Facebook

    Thanks, I saw coconut aminos in a local store for the first time recently and have not had time to look into them further. I try to avoid all soy products, due to the overwhelming evidence of all of the health problems associated with it, BUT I do enjoy the taste of soy sauce.

    July 9th, 2013 11:07 am Reply
  • Larry Underwood via Facebook

    To retain beneficial enzymes and nutritional cofactors.

    July 9th, 2013 10:56 am Reply
  • Mayan Orgel via Facebook

    Do you have some brand recommendations? I see Ohsawa is an unpasteurized brand – are there any others? Any pasteurized (yet still not bad) brands? How can one tell which sauce is naturally fermented and which is chemically fermented?

    July 9th, 2013 10:55 am Reply
  • Kate Tremont via Facebook

    Why dies it make a difference if it is pasteurized or not? Just curious.

    July 9th, 2013 10:45 am Reply
  • Sarah W.

    I’ve been buying Trader Joe’s soy sauce due to it’s simple ingredient list: water, soybean, wheat, salt and vinegar. Label claims it is made in Japan using natural brewing and fermentation, spread over 6 months to 2 years. Does this sound like a safer choice than regular grocery store sauces?

    July 9th, 2013 10:10 am Reply
    • Wael

      I buy Trader Joe’s as well. If their label is accurate, it’s a natural product.

      October 30th, 2013 1:14 am Reply
    • Heather

      Any response to this— regarding choice to use TJ’s Soy Sauce??

      August 4th, 2014 3:42 pm Reply
  • Patty

    How about coconut aminos?

    July 9th, 2013 10:06 am Reply
  • Denver Tina via Facebook

    I just might make your recipe! I have to wait until I make some broth though.

    July 9th, 2013 9:54 am Reply
  • Denver Tina via Facebook

    Try taking it back where you bought it. They store my just exchanged it for something else since it’s unopened.

    July 9th, 2013 9:51 am Reply
  • Kathy Mentor

    South River Miso in Conway, MA makes an amazing Miso Tamari from their Chickpea Miso that is unpasteurized. They also produce several tasty varieties of Seasonal Miso on their Farm. Southriver.com

    July 9th, 2013 9:50 am Reply
  • Maureen LaValley Ruble via Facebook

    Sigh….. thanks for sharing, though now I have an unopened bottle of liquid aminos that I don’t know what to do with except through in the trash. :0(

    July 9th, 2013 9:30 am Reply
    • Shannon

      Do a bit more research before you toss your Braggs — the article has some holes.

      July 9th, 2013 2:47 pm Reply
      • heather

        hi shannon,
        i am so curious as to know more about braggs. my children’s school uses so much of it and i have been quite worried about it. i at a big batch of their soup this week and had a wicked migraine, but didn’t attribute it to the braggs. could you please share with me where the holes are in this article, i really would like to know more.
        thanks so much
        heather

        October 19th, 2013 8:58 am Reply
  • Sharon Mitas Abler via Facebook

    Thanks I have been looking for one.

    July 9th, 2013 9:29 am Reply
  • Michele Fairman via Facebook

    LK – a huge thank you ! I just remember that I had looked up liquid aminos at some point and saw they were made with soy, I had no idea about coconut aminos.

    July 9th, 2013 9:28 am Reply
  • Larry Underwood via Facebook

    Read the article.

    July 9th, 2013 9:24 am Reply
  • The Cafe Wellness via Facebook

    Substitute with coconut aminos and you don’t have to worry about the “maybe, maybe not”!

    July 9th, 2013 9:20 am Reply
  • LK Blackard via Facebook

    Michele, have you tried coconut aminos? It’s a great soy sauce substitute!

    July 9th, 2013 9:14 am Reply
  • Lori Tullis via Facebook

    I make a substitute because of my migraines. This is on my blog ~ http://lori1971.blogspot.com/2013/01/soy-sauce-substitute.html

    July 9th, 2013 9:10 am Reply
  • Brittany Blankenship via Facebook

    I’ve been using liquid aminos in my cooking, for about a year now, instead of soy sauce. We all love it!

    July 9th, 2013 9:08 am Reply
    • watchmom3

      Me too Brittany! I am so mad now! I am highly allergic to MSG and ALWAYs get severe headaches with it! Not to mention, my husband has a large kidney stone and we are being so careful about any salty products! The “bragging” is going to stop here! Thanks for this article!!!

      July 9th, 2013 3:13 pm Reply
  • Larry Underwood via Facebook

    I can’t figure out if Eden Foods’ version is unpasteurized or not. They didn’t respond back to me when I asked them, either. http://www.edenfoods.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=107310

    July 9th, 2013 9:05 am Reply
  • Kirsten Trethowan via Facebook

    What about organic Tamari?

    July 9th, 2013 9:04 am Reply
  • Michele Fairman via Facebook

    due to soy allergies in the family, I *need* a soy sauce substitute. thanks !

    July 9th, 2013 9:02 am Reply
  • rc

    Do you know if alcohol is a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation or if it is necessary added ingredient for tamari and soy sauce? I buy the san j organic tamari since its going to be heated in cooking anyway, but have only been able to find the cheap store brands without alcohol added.

    July 9th, 2013 2:51 am Reply
  • Robin Logan

    Thanks for another very informative and important article.

    July 8th, 2013 9:26 pm Reply
  • Brooke

    Are there any raw, wheat free tamari products that you are aware of?

    July 8th, 2013 9:07 pm Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      I am not aware of any unpasteurized tamari brands. Only the unpasteurized soy sauce linked in the article.

      July 8th, 2013 10:05 pm Reply
      • Beth

        As an alternative, you might try Red Boat fermented fish sauce. It’s just anchovies and sea salt, traditionally fermented in wooden barrels. It gives a salty flavor boost to foods and if you put some on after the food has cooled a bit, you can preserve the fermented goodness and enzymes. It’s wheat free, soy free, everything free except for anchovies and sea salt, and is GAPS friendly to boot. (Note that some of the other brands, like Thai Kitchen fish sauce, are not fermented and contain sugar.)

        July 9th, 2013 11:23 am Reply
        • Victoria

          Thanks for that info, Beth. :)

          October 19th, 2013 12:03 am Reply
        • Bethany

          Thank you, Beth! I had no idea that Thai Kitchen fish sauce was not fermented! I’ll be throwing that bottle out and looking for one that is fermented! Is Red Boat the only one or are there others?

          October 19th, 2013 12:36 am Reply
    • Jen

      I purchased a raw, wheat free tamari from South River Miso a few years ago, made from their garlic red pepper miso. It’s a great company, who produces traditional, fermented products. I love every product I’ve ordered from them. They only ship in cooler months, so I don’t think you can order until September, but it’s worth the wait!

      http://www.southrivermiso.com/

      July 9th, 2013 11:35 am Reply
  • Ali Rich

    What about coconut aminos? Are those also not good?

    July 8th, 2013 8:07 pm Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      Coconut aminos should be ok if the nectar is just aged. If the coconut nectar is hydrolyzed, that is not good. Perhaps check with the company of the brand you buy to double check about the specific processing technique they utilize.

      July 8th, 2013 10:04 pm Reply
      • Beth

        Has anyone looked into the Coconut Secret brand?

        July 14th, 2013 11:00 am Reply

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