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Miso - What Is It & Why Is It So Good For Us?

Miso - What Is It & Why Is It So Good For Us?

During the 18 years he lived in Japan, Clearspring's founder Christopher Dawson became an expert on miso quality, and the Clearspring range is his selection of the finest traditionally made Japanese miso.

What is miso?

Miso is a fermented Japanese soya food made using the special koji fermentation culture and different types of grains.

How is Clearspring miso made?

Clearspring miso is still made as slowly and authentically as possible, a rare practice in today's fast moving world.

Slow production and traditional fermentation create a rich and complex flavour and the best possible health benefits for miso.

Clearspring miso is made using organically grown ingredients, with handmade koji that is full of potent digestive enzymes to break down the beans and grains, whole soya beans that undergo long, slow cooking, and natural ageing in seasoned cedarwood kegs over many months at ambient temperature.

Sadly, very little miso in Japan is still made this traditional way. Some may be naturally aged, but has koji prepared using an automated process which excludes the wild organisms that give personality to the miso and benefit digestion - think how traditional sourdough bread compares with quick yeast baked bread and you will get the picture. Moreover, it will be fermented in stainless steel or plastic tanks that fail to impart the subtle nuances of flavour that cedarwood provides. Such standardised miso has a uniform taste and unvarying texture.

Further down the quality scale is the majority of the miso made today. This is produced in just a few weeks using a rapid, high temperature automated process with no real ageing. Whilst it is cheap to produce, it has a dull, flat and lifeless quality when compared with traditionally made miso.

An example of the process:

Is miso always fermented in cedar wood kegs? And why are stones piled on top of the kegs?

Clearspring’s long-fermentation misos are always aged slowly in cedar wood kegs. This is in contrast to many modern miso manufacturers who try to mimic the traditional way by carrying out accelerated temperature controlled fermentation in plastic or stainless steel holding tanks. Traditional methods result in a paste that is full of vitality, character and complexity. Heavy stones must be placed on top of the keg to encourage the fermentation by adding weight on top of the mash.

What are the health benefits of miso?

Miso is a nourishing, high energy whole food that can help maintain health and vitality. Centuries of Japanese folklore and recent scientific studies have both shown that miso is a powerful health food, and a concentrated source of essential nutrients. 

All dark varieties of Clearspring miso are made using cereal grains and whole soya beans, so the nutrition of these whole foods is fully available in the finished miso.

Production of miso begins by cooking soya beans and combining them with koji (grains or soya beans inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae mould spores), salt and water. This mixture is then fermented and aged over several months in large cedarwood kegs. 

Over time, the enzymes from the koji, along with naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, gradually break down the complex grains and beans into readily digestible amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars, making miso an excellent food for strengthening digestion.

Friendly bacteria

The same enzymes that help with fermentation during the making of miso can also help with digestion of a meal that includes miso, and can even destroy substances in food that cause food allergies.

Miso also acts like a digestive tonic, and once established in the intestine, the acid-loving bacteria found in abundance in unpasteurised miso promote health and stamina.

Beneficial bacteria found in the small intestine are also effective in fighting conditions such as constipation, yeast infections (candidiasis), and lactose intolerance. New research is also beginning to suggest that some friendly bacteria strains may combat more serious diseases such as coronary heart disease and cancer.

Miso as a health protector

John and Jan Belleme, who are authors of The Miso Book and have been researching miso for twenty five years, say that using miso regularly is the best health insurance you can have. Much more than a proverbial 'apple a day', a daily bowl of miso will not only keep the doctor away, it will add vitality to your life. Without a doubt, miso is a culinary treasure - the world's most medicinal everyday food.

In some parts of China and Japan drinking miso soup every day is still associated with a long, healthy life. Starting the day with miso soup is said to alkalise the body and help neutralise the acidity caused by the over consumption of meat, sugar and alcohol. 

Miso was touted for centuries as a folk remedy for cancer, weak digestion, tobacco poisoning, low libido, and several types of intestinal infections. Recently, some scientific studies have shown that miso really is effective against atomic radiation, heavy metal poisoning, cardiovascular disease, many forms of cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and food allergies. 

Soya isoflavones

Many of miso's reputed health properties have been associated with a group of biochemicals found in soya called isoflavones. These are compounds that have a similar shape to oestrogen and which various scientific studies have indicated may be effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. They are believed to help fight cancer as they slot into the body’s oestrogen receptor sites, thereby preventing cancerous tumours from being supplied with the hormone required for their growth. (1)

Research has also shown that fermented soya products contain much higher levels of isoflavones than raw soya beans, and in particular genistein, a plant isoflavone that is a potent anti-cancer agent. Studies have shown that the occurrence of certain types of cancer is lower in countries that have a tradition of consuming soya based foods, such as Japan, China and Singapore. (2)

  1. From ‘Foods To Fight Cancer’ by Professor Richard Beliveau and Dr Denis Gingras
  2. From ‘Japanese Foods that Heal’ by John and Jan Belleme

Also read: Miso Soup Cuts Breast Cancer Risk

Should miso be cooked?

Unpasteurised miso contains an abundance of live enzymes that can be destroyed through prolonged cooking. However, other health and nutritional properties, as well as the flavour of miso, are left unaltered by cooking, and some recipes suggest cooking miso to develop the flavour of other ingredients in the dish.

To maximise the enzymatic benefits of miso, choose an unpasteurised variety (or freeze-dried miso soup) and select recipes where miso is added towards the end of cooking.

What kind of dishes can it be used in?

Miso can be used instead of salt to flavour dishes such as soups and stews. It combines well with ingredients such as ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, tahini and citrus zest and juice. Check our recipe section for more specific suggestions.

How should miso be stored?

Generally, the best way to store miso to maintain its freshness and quality is in a cool cupboard or refrigerator. However, it really depends on climatic conditions and personal preference.

High temperatures will encourage further fermentation, which although not harmful, will darken the colour and alter the flavour of the miso as well as possibly leading to a build-up of pressure within the packaging.

How salty is miso?

Salt plays an integral part in many fermented and pickled foods. It acts as a check to the fermentation process, creating foods with optimum nutrition but preventing them from spoiling. Miso contains enough salt to successfully control the fermentation, with the actual amount varying from 5% for lighter varieties up to 12% for stronger, darker varieties.

Miso is a concentrated seasoning with considerable flavouring ability, so there is no need to use a lot of it. When substituting miso for salt, add approximately one to two teaspoons of miso for one quarter of a teaspoon of salt. This way salt intake can be lowered and full benefit gained from the flavour and nutrition of miso.

Are Clearspring soya foods non GM?

Organic certification does not allow genetic modification, so all Clearspring organic foods are therefore certified non GM.

With its non-organic foods, Clearspring is careful to only trade products where there is a declaration from the supplier that all the ingredients are non GM.

What are the different varieties of miso?

Like with French wine or Belgian beers, miso comes in numerous varieties, each with its own unique taste, colour and texture, and each reflecting the local culture, crops and growing conditions of different regions of Japan.

While sweet miso with few soya beans, less salt and more koji and popular in the south of Japan, darker miso, often call aka or red miso, contains more soya beans and less grain koji, and traditionally comes from the northern part of Japan.

Clearspring range of miso includes the best of each type of miso, both dark and light, as well as pure soya bean and grain based varieties:

Sweet White Miso

Also known as: Shiro miso, Mellow miso, Sweet rice miso
Made with: Soybeans, white rice, water, salt.
Description:
Sweet white miso is quite unique amongst misos; it is only fermented for 2-8 weeks, unlike the other misos which are fermented from one summer up to three years. As its name suggests, its colour is paler than other varieties, spanning from white through to yellow or beige. Creamy, rich and slightly sweet, sweet white miso is high in carbohydrates and koji, but lower in soybeans than the darker varieties.
Originates from: Kyoto
Particularly suited to: Light soups, dips, dressings, spreads. Its creamy texture and taste makes it a perfect dairy substitute in dishes like mashed potato.

Barley Miso

Called in Japan: Mugi miso
Made with: Barley, soybeans, water, salt.
Description: A relatively dark and rich miso that is the traditional miso of rural communities in Japan.
Originates from: Western Japan
Particularly suited to: Soups, stews and sauces

Brown Rice Miso

Called in Japan: Genmai miso
Made with: Soybeans, brown rice, water, salt.
Description: Dark brown in colour, brown rice miso is high in fibre and has a nutty, rich and slightly sweet flavour.
Originates from: Developed for the macrobiotic community and natural food lifestyle
Particularly suited to: Soups, stews, sauces. Also, mixed with sesame tahini to make bread spreads.

Soybean Miso

Called in Japan: Hatcho miso or Mame miso.
Made with: Soybeans, water, salt, roasted barley flour.
Description:
Hatcho, or eighth street, is where you will find the company which has been making their delicious miso to the same recipe for five centuries. The darkest of all the misos, it is packed full of protein and lower in salt than other varieties. Its characteristic smoky flavour is one of the true tastes of traditional Japan,
Originates from: Tokai region
Particularly suited to: Soups and rice dishes.

Rice miso (red miso)

Called in Japan: kome miso (aka miso)
Made with: Rice, water, salt.
Description: Most rice miso is red miso, which is reddish brown in colour and has a high protein content.
Originates from: North East Japan
Particularly suited to: Soups, stews, sauces.


2 Responses

Patrik Johansson
Patrik Johansson

February 20, 2016

Hi
Is there any company in the UK that produces miso or soy sauce (apart from us)?

Holly
Holly

December 18, 2015

This article was very well written and presented and a great online resource for understanding the different variations, aging processes and origins of miso. The only criticism I would make is that under the section discussing the health benefits of miso, all of the statements made are rather vague. Not to suggest there is any un-truth, just that it could be vastly improved by a little more scientific evidence or even just a little more specific detail.

p.s. I love your products and company ethics, I worked in a health food retailer and found your products a joy to sell and could faithfully recommend the highest quality and taste to customers :)

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