Is miso good for you?

Consumer Reports News: May 23, 2013 10:38 AM


Miso, the main ingredient in that cloudy broth you may have had in Japanese restaurants, is relatively high in sodium, with about 630 milligrams per tablespoon. So if you are prone to high blood pressure, you might want to use the ingredient in moderation. But miso has a number of benefits that can make it part of a healthy diet, even if you are watching your blood pressure.

For one, miso, which is made from fermented soybeans plus salt and possibly rice or other grains, adds not only a salty flavor but a rich, savory, almost meaty taste that the Japanese call umami. That taste is common in full-fat dairy products, cooked meats, mushrooms, salmon, and other foods. So using miso can let you cut back on the salt and fat you add to your cooking while enhancing flavor.

Miso has other proven or possible health benefits, too. For one, the fermentation process not only adds flavor but also turns the ingredient into a probiotic, meaning that it's full of potentially good bacteria. Growing research shows that probiotics can help maintain good digestive health. (But since high temperatures kill probiotics, it's best to add miso as a finishing ingredient near the end of your cooking. Luckily, that's how miso is often used in recipes.)

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In addition, since miso is made from soybeans, like other soy foods it is high in isoflavones, food compounds that some research has linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer, menopausal symptoms, and heart disease.

So by all means, go ahead and experiment with miso. There are many kinds of miso, depending on how long the soybeans were fermented and whether barley, rice, or other grains or seeds were added. In general, the darker the paste, the more intense the flavor. They range from white, delicately flavored miso such as shiro to darker, savory misos such as aka, hatcho, and mugi.

Beyond adding miso to soup, try adding it to salad dressings, marinades, or casseroles, mix it with a little light mayo for a twist on your sandwich, or blend with light sour cream and caramelized onions for an unusual onion dip. The more you use it and become comfortable with it, the more uses you'll find.

Two cautions: Avoid miso if you're allergic to soy foods. And miso contains the amino acid tyramine, which can interact with certain older antidepressants such as phenelzine (Nardil), tranylcypromine (Parnate), isocarboxazid (Marplan), and selegiline (Esam, Eldepryl, Zelapar). So be cautious about consuming lots of miso if you take one of those drugs.

Got another question for our health experts? Ask it here. Please include the state you live in.

—Erin Riddell

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