On soy sauces, or, Why you need to read ingredient labels

market shelves including many (many) different kinds of soy sauces
Some of the many soy sauces available at my local Asian market…

Did you know that your average bottle of soy sauce doesn’t contain only soy, but wheat? What’s more, the cheapest soy sauces on the market aren’t fermented from whole ingredients at all, and so are often spiked with food coloring, flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate, and preservatives like sodium benzoate (mixed with citric acid this forms benzene, a carcinogen).

ingredient label for Kikkoman soy sauce. Ingredients: water, wheat, soybeans, salt, sodium benzoate.
List of ingredients in Kikkoman soy sauce, pulled from their website 2019.02.10 – note that this is one of the better commercially available sauces, as it is actually brewed via fermentation.

Soy sauce is *the* staple condiment of most Asian cuisines. And while you might not care about what’s in your soy sauce, you should – used in quantity when stir-frying, a better quality soy sauce offers a better flavor while also being healthier. Traditionally brewed soy sauces are essentially the liquid byproduct (after-product?) of soy beans fermented in salt. Thus they not only have the saltiness of salt, but the digestion-fortifying power of a ferment, and the spleen-centeringness of soybeans.

market shelf with several different kinds of San-J tamari soy sauce
“Tamari” = traditionally fermented soy sauce. Yes it’s more expensive, but, you get what you pay for.

In small quantities for the wheat-tolerant, sure, who cares about the base ingredients? But in larger quantities – when making stir-frys, dressing up side dishes, disguising the icky fish taste of sushi (pickled ginger is medicinally better for this, folks, but I know, its a kind of sacrilege to admit that I want to disguise the sushi at all) – in larger quantities the quality of soy sauce actually matters to ensure you’re deriving medicinal benefit from it, rather than simply spiking your food with chemically-stable salt-water and/or liquid MSG.

Final note: whatever soy sauce you choose to buy, remember that “reduced sodium” sauces, like “shoyu” or light soy-sauces, are always a scam. Add a little water to thin out your regular sauce and voila! Twice the light soy-sauce for half the cost.

market shelf with two different kinds of bottles of Hello Kitty soy sauce
Apparently people will pay a full $1 more for Hello Kitty branded soy-sauce? We live in interesting times.