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When you hear the word miso, soup might be the first word that comes to mind. And it makes sense—miso soup is delicious, and a common staple at sushi bars and Asian fusion restaurants here in the U.S.. But miso is so rich in flavor (and health benefits) that it's well-worth adding into other parts of your diet, pronto.
The word miso translates to "fermented beans" in Japanese. Makes sense, because it's made from fermented soybeans and grains, which can then be used in everything from veggie dishes, marinades, dressings, glazes, and, yes, soups. Miso reportedly originated from China and was introduced to Japan over 1,300 years ago. At the time, it was used to help preserve food, but its rich umami flavor—a balance of salty, earthy, and a tiny bit sweet—was so good that it quickly started being used as an ingredient in its own right. Originally, only the elite had access to miso, but now it's widely available and easy to find.
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Here, registered dietitian Erica Ingraham, RD, shares the complete lowdown on miso health benefits. Plus, get ideas for how to cook with miso at home.
Miso health benefits every healthy eater should know
1. Miso is rich in probiotics
The fact that miso is a fermented food probably tipped you off to this one. "One reason fermented foods like miso benefit the gut because is because they contain probiotics," Ingraham says. "Probiotics are helpful live bacteria that are associated with a range of health benefits including reduced inflammation, healthy digestion, and supporting healthy immune system function." While experts generally caution that probiotics and fermented foods alone likely don't have a huge impact on gut health (and there isn't a ton of research specifically linking miso consumption to improved gut health) incorporating foods with miso into a healthy diet filled with other gut-friendly foods (like fiber and plants) definitely can't hurt.
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2. It supports the nervous system
"Miso contains a range of B vitamins including vitamin B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), and B9 (folate)," Ingraham says, adding that each one benefits the body in different ways. She says that B3, B5, and B9 support the nervous system function properly. Considering that the nervous system controls movement and balance, all five senses, and thought processing in the brain, it's majorly important to get enough.
B vitamins also help provide the body with energy—without enough, you might feel sluggish. "B vitamins are essential for energy production and are involved in reactions of breaking down food into a usable form of energy for the body," Ingraham says. Yet another reason to load up on miso and other foods high in B vitamins.
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"B vitamins are water soluble, meaning they are not stored within the body like fat soluble vitamins are," Ingraham adds. "As such, it is important to get adequate intake of all essential B vitamins since they are not stored within the body."
3. Miso is beneficial for women in early pregnancy
Ingraham says that miso's vitamin B9, aka folate, can especially benefit women in early pregnancy. "[Folate is] important for preventing certain birth defects that affect spinal cord development, known as spina bifida," she says.
4. It's good for your bones
Another nutrient miso is rich in is vitamin K, with 29 microunits per 100 grams (it's recommended to get 90 micrograms a day). "Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in blood clotting, which is important for healing wounds and cuts, and bone health," Ingraham says. Not getting enough vitamin K could lead to developing osteoporosis, so it's important to get enough.
5. It might be beneficial for cardiovascular health
One study found that consuming miso regularly may help protect against strokes, at least in rats. The caveat to this is that it must be done in conjunction with sticking to a low-salt diet. Another small study of Japanese adults found that regular miso soup consumption was associated with decreased heart rate (but had no clear effects on blood pressure). While more research needs to be done—including larger studies with human participants—it's possible that consuming miso regularly could benefit the cardiovascular system.
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Are there any downsides to miso?
It's clear that miso is loaded with health benefits for the entire body. But if you have a soy allergy, steer clear, as miso is made from fermented soy. It is also good to be mindful of your overall salt intake when eating miso, as it can be high in sodium. (Just one tablespoon has over 600 milligrams, which is 26 percent of your daily maximum recommended intake of sodium.)
What to know when buying miso
These days, miso can be found at many grocery stores in the refrigerated section, or at Japanese and Asian specialty markets. You'll notice that there might be multiple different kinds displayed on the shelves—which have slightly different flavor profiles and uses.
"The darker misos—dark red, brown, barley misos—are fermented longer than the light-colored ones," says Ingraham. In general, the darker the color, the more intense the flavor. "The light ones like white and yellow misos may be better for dressings, glazes, and light sauces, while the darker misos are good for heartier dishes like stews and heavier soups," Ingraham says.
Not sure how to cook with miso at home? Keep reading for some ideas.
How to reap miso health benefits by working it into your diet more
Soup is one of the most popular ways to consume miso and if you've never cooked with miso before, this is a great recipe to start with. Besides miso paste, it's full of green veggies and protein-rich tofu, making it well-rounded enough to be the main course for dinner—not just an appetizer.
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Make your own miso paste to have on hand by following this recipe—it's easier than you may think! All you need are four ingredients: dried soybeans, rice koji (which can be found in Japanese stores or online), salt, and water.
Miso is so flavorful that a simple spoonful can instantly transform simple dishes. Here, it's used in a mango and red cabbage one that hits on flavors across the taste spectrum. Think of it as a salad dressing replacement that's full of gut healthy benefits.
Adding miso to your fried rice is an easy way to add in more complex flavors to your dish. Feel free to add tofu or chicken to up the protein in this recipe, and substitute any leftovers you have on hand to make it even healthier and more delicious.
On its own, cauliflower can taste pretty...bland. But that's exactly what makes it such an amazing healthy food chameleon. This easy recipe shows how to roast cauliflower with miso paste and red pepper flakes, making it a delicious savory side dish with a bit of a kick. Top it with cilantro and lime juice to add another layer to the already rich flavor profile.
Ramen lovers, this one's for you. Slurping up the noodles in this dish has the same satisfaction of digging into the beloved soup. While the recipe doesn't include broth, the noodles can easily be worked into one if you want. It only takes 20 minutes to throw it together and the dish is 100 percent vegan—and delicious.
Nasu dengaku, aka miso-glazed eggplant, is a popular Japanese dish that can be used as an appetizer, side dish, or an entree when paired with rice and the protein of your choice. If you've never cooked eggplant before, this recipe shows exactly how to do it, and how to use the miso as the glaze that makes it so darn good. Eat it as is or blend it up and use it as a miso-flavored eggplant dip for chips, crackers, or veggies.
Did you make one of these miso recipes or have a favorite of your own? Share it in Well+Good's Cook With Us Facebook group.
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