If you’re getting ready to cook some stir-fry, rice, an Asian salad, soup, or other recipe that calls for soy sauce, you may find yourself a little stumped. After all, there are alternatives out there. What about tamari, or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos? There’s even Coconut Aminos that are supposed to create a similar taste.
We decided to do some digging on all these condiments and report what we found. Here are the pros and cons of each one—you get to choose which works for your recipe tonight!
Made from the fermented paste of boiled soybeans, salt, water, and sometimes roasted grains, soy sauce is a traditional condiment used in Asian cuisine, with a salty, earthy flavor that can easily transfer to all sorts of dishes. To make it, manufacturers cook the soybeans, then add in bacterial and fungal cultures to begin the fermentation process. Roasted wheat and other grains can also be added for flavor.
The culture is then combined with a salt brine and allowed to “brew” for a time, while microorganisms break down the proteins and sugars naturally found in the soybeans. The mixture is then pressed to extract the dark brown liquid, and finally, pasteurized before bottled.
There are a number of varieties of soy sauce, including:
- Light: What we think of as “normal” soy sauce, this option contains fewer soybeans and more grains, mainly wheat.
- Dark: These are typically fermented for a longer period of time. Then manufacturers add molasses or caramel after the brewing process, to thicken the sauce and provide a sweeter flavor. Dark soy sauce may also contain about 50 percent grains.
- Low-Sodium: This option has less sodium than the other varieties, and is made using acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which doesn’t use bacterial and fungal cultures and requires less salt.
- Tamari: This option is made with mostly soybeans—and little to no wheat or other grains. More on this below. It has a smoother, deeper flavor.
- Pros: Soy sauce has a potent flavor, and is rich in antioxidants, isoflavones, and protein. Provides vitamin B6, which is important in forming good mood neurotransmitters. The isoflavones may help prevent heart disease, and lower the risk of osteoporosis. Some studies have suggested that it may provide some benefits to the digestive tract, with probiotics that support the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut. The antioxidant density has also been compared with that of red wine.
- Cons: It’s high in sodium—about 1,000 mg per serving. For those watching their blood pressure or other health conditions, it may not be the healthiest option. Soy sauce naturally contains MSG, which is produced during the fermentation process. Because it’s not added, it may not be on the ingredient list. The soybeans and wheat used to make the sauce may be contaminated with GMO crops. Because of the wheat content, the sauce contains gluten, which may affect those with gluten sensitivities. Soy is also a common food allergen.
As mentioned above, Tamari is a version of soy sauce made with little-to-no grains. Called “Japanese soy sauce,” it’s a deeper brown color and slightly thicker than ordinary soy sauce. Some people prefer the darker, richer flavor.
The general rule of thumb with tamari is that it provides a better flavor for cooking, whereas regular soy sauce may be better on the table, though some prefer the smoother taste of tamari in dipping sauces as well. Because of the lower level of grains, tamari is made with a greater concentration of soybeans, which changes not only the flavor, but some of the health benefits as well.
- Pros: Provides niacin (vitamin B3), manganese, and mood-enhancing tryptophan, and contains more protein than regular soy sauce. Other health benefits are similar to regular soy sauce. Smooth, rich flavor is great in soups, salad dressings, and in a range of other dishes in place of salt. Though some tamari sauces have some wheat, you can find wheat-free versions that work for a gluten-free diet.
- Cons: Tamari is still high in sodium, though there are some reduced-sodium options that may be around 700 mg per serving. Check the nutrition facts. It also contains MSG, and may be an allergen to those who are sensitive. You can find MSG-free options. The soybeans used may also be GMO crops.
Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
Bragg’s has apparently admitted that they make this liquid protein concentrate by treating soybeans with hydrochloric acid to create free amino acids, then neutralizing the remaining acid with sodium bicarbonate, which creates sodium chloride—and the salty taste. Corn syrup, caramel, water, and salt may be added to create flavor.
This product is said to be rich in amino acids like arginine, glutamic acid, glycine, serine, tyrosine, lysine, and more. It’s marketed as a non-fermented alternative to soy sauce and tamari, and is often labeled as GMO-free.
- Pros: Gluten-free, and GMO-free. Still may contain naturally occurring MSG. A good source of protein with healthy amino acids. Works as an alternative to soy in most recipes.
- Cons: This type of sauce is sometimes called “chemical soy sauce” because it’s made by a chemical process rather than with natural bacterial and fungal cultures. Some caution against using it because it is a so-called “artificial” sauce. Though often advertised as having less sodium than other soy sauce options, check labels—some comparisons have found that it contains about the same amount or even more. Be particularly careful about “serving sizes”—they may be lower than what you’re seeing on regular soy sauce. Some say the flavor, as well, is not as good as fermented soy sauce.
Made from raw, coconut tree sap and sun-dried sea salt, then naturally aged, this condiment is catching on as a potential alternative to soy sauce. Completely free of soy, it has a dark, rich, and salty flavor with a faint, sweet aftertaste, and can be used in salads, marinades, and as a seasoning.
- Pros: Gluten-free. Soy-free. Lower sodium option. Contains a higher level of 17 amino acids, which may contribute to heart health, digestive health, and mood stabilization. Also contains vitamins B and C, and various minerals.
- Cons: Couldn’t find any!
What do you think is the safest, healthiest option of these four? Please share your thoughts.