Is soy sauce vegan? There’s been a lot of debate about this salty condiment of late, so I thought it was about time I put fingers to keyboard and gave you a definitive answer to this commonly asked plant-based query.
What is soy sauce?
Okay, so before we dig into the whole is it or isn’t it vegan debate, let’s take a quick look at what this mysterious brown liquid actually is.
Soy sauce is an ancient Chinese condiment thought to have first come into existence during the Western Han dynasty some 2,200 years ago.
Made from fermented soybeans, this salty seasoning quickly became a popular kitchen staple throughout East and Southeast Asia before finally going global in the late ’50s, thanks largely to Yuzaburo Mugi of Japanese soy sauce giant, Kikkoman. (1)
Unlike today, salt was once an expensive commodity, so soy sauce – along with other condiments of its kind – was originally created in order to make the costly mineral go further.
Its deep umami flavor lends itself so well to a wide variety of dishes, soy sauce’s popularity continues to grow despite salt prices plummeting and health concerns surrounding excess sodium in our diet.
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Types of soy sauce
As one would expect, there are a multitude of different types of soy sauce available on the market today. Until relatively recently, in the West we only had three choices: regular, light, and dark.
Now, however, other types of soy sauce are available, such as Japanese variations like tamari, koikuchi, and usukuchi.
Chinese: Dark, light, and regular
Chinese light soy sauce is taken from the early stages of the production process and, as its name suggests, is light in color and has a subtle, mellow flavor. Dark soy sauce, on the other hand, is more mature and has been left to develop more depth, both in taste and smell.
The dark variety also gives sweetness to dishes thanks to the addition of caramel. Regular soy sauce is simply a mixture of both dark and light varieties, making it the perfect all-rounder for general kitchen use.
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Japanese shoyu: Tamari, usukuchi, and koikuchi
The Japanese varieties of soy sauce (shoyu) offer something different entirely. Tamari is probably closest to traditional Chinese soy sauce, but has one key difference that has boosted its popularity over the last few years: it’s made with either zero wheat or very little of the much-maligned grain.
While the jury is still out on whether wheat really is as terrible as it has been made out to be, those looking to lower their gluten intake have opted for tamari and sent its popularity soaring.
You can find it pretty much everywhere these days, including online, of course.
Usukuchi is the Japanese light soy sauce, and it packs a pretty powerful punch in terms of taste. Salty, but sweet, the intensity of flavor is quite astonishing, so its best to use this condiment sparingly.
This makes it perfect for seasoning vegetables without losing any vibrancy in color. The sweetness in usukuchi comes from the Japanese sweet rice wine, mirin, another common ingredient, especially in dishes such as stir-fries and teriyaki.
You can buy usukuchi here.
Koikuchi is probably the most widely used soy sauce in Japan, taking around 80% of the market share in the country.
Westerners, too, are likely to be most familiar with koikuchi, as it is the type most commonly stocked by supermarkets in the US and UK. As with the other shoyu listed here, you’ll also find it online, too.
This condiment is used in a range of dishes and is ideal for marinades, stir-fries, and even as a dipping sauce.
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How is soy sauce made?
Unsurprisingly, the production process of soy sauce has changed somewhat over the last 2,200 years. Traditionally, soy sauce was brewed up entirely by hand over months, undergoing multiple steps to achieve the depth of flavor required. Nowadays, technology has stepped in, and vast processing plants do the work.
There are five key ingredients to soy sauce. These are:
No prizes for guessing this one! Yep, soy sauce is made from soybeans. The proteins within the soybeans, once fermented, are what give the sauce its flavor.
While tamari may not contain wheat, most other soy sauces do. The carbs found within the grain add to the condiments distinctive smell and wheat also brings a sweetness to the end product too.
Salt and water
The next two ingredients – salt and water – are combined to create a brine in which the fermentation process takes place. The preservative values of salt help keep the bacteria in check as the soybeans ferment.
Fungal and bacterial cultures
While these may not necessarily be considered as ‘ingredients’, fungal and bacterial cultures are an important part of the soy sauce making process. A common filamentous fungus spore used is that of Aspergillus oryzae, commonly referred to as koji.
The soy sauce making process consists of six main stages:
The soybeans are first soaked and then cooked in boiling water, while the wheat is roasted and then crushed ready for stage two.
Cooked soybeans and wheat are mixed together in equal quantities to create a grain mix, to which the koji is added.
The grain mix, along with its propagated koji mold, is now mixed with the brine so that a wet fermentation process can take place. It is during this stage that the grain’s proteins get broken down and the sauce begins to take on its key characteristics, namely aroma, taste, and color.
Much of the commercially brewed soy sauce is pushed through this part of the process as quickly as possible in order to keep up with demand, but some artisanal producers will leave the mash (called moromi) to ferment for up to three years.
Although the grain mix is largely broken down by the active cultures, solids still remain. The pressing process separates these particles from the liquid that is to become the end product.
This stage is essential in order to remove any active molds or yeast (check out Can Vegans Have Yeast for more on this microscopic fungus) from the sauce. To achieve this, the liquid is usually heated before being filtered for the final time.
The final stage in the process is packaging. For most soy sauces this means being bottled and shipped to supermarkets across the world, but others may be aged before being placed on the market.
Check out the excellent video below from National Geographic for a full documentation of the traditional soy sauce making process.
Okay, so is soy sauce vegan?
With all of the above information to hand, there seems to be very little to say that soy sauce isn’t vegan, but there’s more to it than you may think.
Firstly, there’s a misconception to get over. Many people mistakenly believe that soy sauce contains fish, but this is simply incorrect, as fish sauce is now a standalone product in its own right.
Yes, it’s true that during the Zhou dynasty fermented fish was used along with soybeans to create a condiment, but that is no longer the case for mainstream soy sauce products.
So, if soy sauce contains no animal products, why wouldn’t it be vegan? Well, the problem stems largely from the exposure of Kikkoman by PETA a few years back when it was revealed that the food company carried out routine animal testing in order to substantiate health claims related to its products.
The news of the barbaric practices spread like wildfire throughout the vegan and animal rights world, which has lead many to come to the conclusion that all soy sauce is in question, which simply isn’t the case.
Soy sauce in itself is plant-based, but the companies behind its production may have some shady practices you’d like to avoid if you are following a vegan lifestyle.
That being said, Kikkoman have done the right thing and listened to the 100,000 consumers who emailed them in protest and have now ended all experiments involving animals when testing their products. (2)
So, the bottom line is yes, soy sauce is vegan, but you should you really be eating it?
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Is soy sauce bad for your health?
The question of whether soy sauce is bad for your health is something that many clean eaters struggle with. On the one hand, it’s tasty and convenient. On the other, it’s extremely high in salt and soy is being hammered left, right, and center at present.
Soy is one of those foods that seems to be a saviour one day and a killer the next. Most of the health concerns surrounding soy products are, unsurprisingly, associated with processed products, so these should be avoided.
Soy is a good source of nutrients, and fermented soy is the pick of the bunch (think tempeh, miso, natto, and, yes, soy sauce). There has been research conducted which shows that fermented soy products reduce the impact of anti-nutrients found within the legume, which makes it more viable for those looking to eat healthily. (3)
The reduction in these anti-nutrients allow soy’s naturally healthy properties to be more available to the body and also improves their digestion too.
However, as with most things, moderation and balance is key. Consuming soy products occasionally is absolutely fine, but eating soy every day is probably not the best thing you could do for your health.
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Choosing the right vegan soy sauce
Finally, it’s important to bear in mind not all soy sauces are the same. Mass manufactured soy sauce is basically little more than liquid chemicals, as the commercial market demands the product be churned out so quickly that little nutritional value remains.
The modern day soy processing is far removed from the traditional method mentioned above, and a bottle of soy sauce can be turned around in as little as two days.
This is made possible by a process called rapid hydrolysis, which involves hydrolysed soy protein, which contains around 18% hydrochloric acid, being heated for around 12 hours before being neutralized with sodium carbonate.
To say that the resulting gloop bears little-to-no-resemblance to true soy sauce is somewhat of an understatement.
To get around the disgusting nature of this concoction, manufacturers will generally throw in a little “real” soy sauce to improve the quality of the product. Other ingredients like sugar, flavorings, and colorings can also be added, taking the sauce even further away from what it is truly supposed to be.
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There are numerous other nasties associated with commercial soy sauce, and some countries have even issued “hazard alerts” and asked for items to be removed from supermarket shelves due to high levels of chemicals such as 3-MCPD which is thought to be linked to cancer. (4)
So, how do you avoid such undesirables? Well, the obvious way is to not consume soy sauce at all, but I’m guessing that’s not what you want to hear. Thankfully, you don’t have to go without.
Choosing fully fermented, raw, organic soy sauce will lessen the chances of consuming harmful chemicals and improve the taste of your meals considerably, too, so that’s the way to go.
How often do you use soy sauce? What’s your favorite recipe? Let me know in the comments below.
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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- The Economist | Sauce of success | https://www.economist.com/business/2009/04/08/sauce-of-success
- PETA | Kikkoman Ends Animal Tests! | https://www.peta.org/action/action-alerts/kikkoman-ends-animal-tests/
- I E Liener | Implications of antinutritional components in soybean foods | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8142044/
- BBC NEWS | Contaminated sauce warning | http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/460900.stm