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History, Process, Benefits, and Kinds of Miso

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Large tub of miso paste for selling

Miso is a traditional East Asian food made from fermenting soybeans and a grain (barley, rye, or rice). The fermentation process results in a thick paste, miso, which can then be used in various culinary creations, like miso soup. Below is an look at the fermentation process, miso's history and flavour factors, as well as a nutritional analysis and look at miso's health benefits.

Roasted Miso Paste
Small amount of miso paste reading to be used in cooking


Miso and Status[edit]

Miso is one of the most culturally and socially important foods in Japan, with a long history dating back to its introduction to Japan in the eighth century[1][2]. In Gillian Crowther’s analysis of how rules surrounding food, classifications of food, and edibility are embedded in both cultural construction and social order[3], as well as Weissner and Schiefenhövel’s exploration of human food behaviors, it is clear that all aspects of food both carry and represent status[4]. Factors effecting food status can relate to the status of the consumer, the way it influences food and social behaviors, and through its nutritional value, a factor that affects both the prominence of the food and the cognitive importance of the consumer[4]. The shifting status of Japanese miso throughout history  reflects these values. Miso has always been a high-status food in Japan, yet it’s popularity in this sense has altered and changed with society’s changing values, based on the changing information on the health properties and economic or social value of the dish.

Miso and Spirituality (The Eighth - Nineteenth Century)[edit]

Heian Period Monk

Miso was not always as popular and commoditized as it is today. During the start of Japan’s Heian period from in the eighth century, miso paste was prepared only by Buddhist monks[5], and eaten strictly as a delicacy by monks and nobility[2]. However, during the mid-eighth century, the Emperor Mommu created laws in order to regulate the commoditization and taxation of miso, which resulted in an increase in its production and popularity[5]. By the tenth century miso was being produced not only in the capitol, but in all of the provinces, and had gained mass popularity[5].

Miso as a Wartime Food (The Twelfth - Seventeenth Century)[edit]

Kamakura samurai

During the start of the Kamakura period in the twelfth century miso became a staple cuisine item for Kamakura samurai[2]. Miso gained newfound status as a symbol of strength, peacefulness, and victory, reflecting the values of the samurai warriors ruling the country at the time[1][2]. This outlook on miso continued into the Muromachi period in the thirteenth century, when the samurai moved back from Kamakura to Kyoto, and the country was in a state of civil war[1]. It was within this period that miso started developing in many different locations and varieties in Japan[5]. Miso was considered a good wartime food for soldiers, as it was inexpensive, nutritious, and had a long shelf-life[1]. The value of miso as a wartime staple continued into The Warring States period in fifteenth and sixteenth century during the hundred years of civil war[2].

Miso and the Economy (Seventeenth - Twentieth Century)[edit]

During the Edo period from the seventeenth to nineteenth century, the country was at a state of peace and economic growth[6].  Miso was considered both a commodity and a delicacy[2]. This was in part because of a thrift ordinance issued by the shogunate urging frugal lifestyles[1], as well as the converse trend of the emergence of a wealthy merchant class which put high-grade miso in high demand[2]. As a result, miso's economic versatility allowed it to become even more important and popularized than it previously had been[2]. During the Meiji and Pre-war periods from the nineteenth to early twentieth century, miso production continued to increase drastically as Japan became open to overseas trade and miso became a globally renowned product[1][6].

Miso in the Modern Day (1940’s - Present)[edit]

Miso production and consumption decreased substantially during the Second World War, yet in it's wake commercial miso production increased drastically[1]. Japan became more urbanized and industrialized, and major developments were made to the soybean fermentation process, making miso cheaper and faster to produce[1]. During this time Japan began to look at food from a scientific perspective[1], which led to a multitude of discoveries about miso’s health values. In modern day, miso has been popularized as a health-food due to the evidence that it helps prevent gastric disorders, improve metabolism, reduce toxins, reduce the effects of aging and prevent high blood pressure[2][7][8]. The trend of attributing health and beauty properties with food products is a widespread phenomenon worldwide, and miso’s status continues increase as a result, as demonstrated by it's ever-increasing exportation and global consumption rates.[2]


Although often a yellow-green colour, this is a white strain of a. oryzae

Miso's unique properties and flavour profile can be attributed to the compounds produced through the fermentation process. Miso, depending on the variety, consists a starter culture called Koji, soybeans, and usually a grain (either rice, barley, or rye). [9] The miso goes through a two step process; first creating the koji, and second the koji is combined with the other components and the mixture is left to be enzymatic digested, fermented and aged.

Creating Koji[edit]

Koji is produced by introducing the mould aspergillus oryzae onto steamed brown rice. This mould culture comes from dried a. oryzae spores called 'tane-koji' or 'starter koji' and is isolated from plant matter (usually rice) and cultivated.[10] In the past, the natural presence of a. oryzae spores was relied upon to create koji, but because of the difficulty of producing the culture, tane-koji is added almost exclusively in both industrial and traditional production of miso. Tane-koji is produced much in the same way as koji, but also has a small portion of wood ash added to the mixture[11] which gives important nutrients to the fungus as well as promotes sporulation.  

A. oryzae is an aerobic fungus and is the most active fermenting agents in Koji[12] as it produces amylolytic, and proteolytic enzymes which are essential to creating the final miso product. Amyloytic enzymes such as amylase aid in the breakdown of starch in the grains to sugar and dextrin,[13] while proteolytic enzymes such as protease catalyze the breakdown of proteins into smaller peptides or amino acids. These both aid in the enzymatic digestion of the mixture of rice and soybeans. Depending on the strain of a. oryzae, enzymatic composition varies thereby changing the characteristics of the final miso product. For example, the strain used to create the sweeter white miso would likely produce a higher content of amylolytic enzymes, while comparatively a soybean miso might have a higher content of proteolytic enzyme.          

To create optimal conditions for enzymatic production and the growth of a. oryzae, the koji's environment must be carefully regulated. Temperature, humidity and oxygen content, are all important factors in not only maximizing mould growth and enzyme production, but to prevent other harmful bacteria from producing. Once the koji has reached a desirable flavour profile it is usually mixed with salt to prevent further fermentation. [14]          

Although other strains of fungi have been used to produce Koji, a. oryzae does not produce aflatoxin (a highly toxic and carcinogenic mycotoxin)[11]; this coupled with its other properties make it most desirable to isolate.                              

Second Fermentation[edit]

Nearing the end of the koji fermentation soybeans are soaked, then cooked (by boiling or pressure cooking), then crushed. Next the grains, soybeans, and koji are mixed together with sterile water, salt, and an inoculate.[10] This inoculate helps to speed up the fermentation process as it contains more developed yeast and lactic acid cultures. This inoculate is more regulated in a commercial or industrial setting, traditionally an unpasteurized portion of a previous miso batch is used. [14]                              

The mixture is then packed tightly in a container to remove any excess air and sealed. In absence of oxygen the aerobic a. oryzae mould dies off, while the enzymes that were produced by the mould begin to break the down the starch, protein, and lipids of the beans and grain. These components are broken down by three types of enzymes: proteolytic, amylolytic, and lypolytic.                              

Proteolytic enzymes aid in the breakdown proteins to smaller component amino acids, while Lypolytic enzymes aid in the breakdown of fats into glycerol and free fatty acids. Both of these contribute to the flavour and aroma of the final miso product.                              

Amylase hydrolysis (a common amylolytic enzyme breaking down starch)

Amylolytic enzymes breakdown the starches to simpler sugars. This process is essential as it creates fuel for the growth of yeast and lactic acid producing bacteria[11][10].[1] The yeast consumes sugars and converts them into alcohols and organic acids. The lactic acid producing bacteria convert the sugars to various acids which help further preserve the miso as well as contribute to the over all flavour profile. As the miso ages these yeasts and lactic acids produce new compounds creating a complex system of microorganisms and chemical reactions. Various factors such as the ratio of beans and grains[1][11], the temperature of the miso during fermentation[14][10][11], and atmospheric content[14][10], can radically effect the bacteria and enzymes. These become important variables to control and regulate in order to produce desirable flavour, and colour of the final miso product.[14]                              

Flavour Factors[edit]

The taste, aroma, texture and appearance of miso come in a vast variety depending on the region and season, including the variables that contribute to the flavour of a particular miso. Some of those variables include the heating, season, length of fermentation, salt content, type of koji and the container that was used for the fermentation process, all of which contribute to the different qualities of miso. With the different combinations of the variables, miso paste can be earthy, sweet, salty, savoury and fruity. For example, when heat is applied to the miso, the varying temperature has an effect on the intensity of the savoury in the miso paste [10]. Two ancient Japanese taste concepts, Umami and Kokumi, can be tasted in all types of miso. People taste umami through receptors that bind onto the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides, giving a distinct “meaty” and “brothy” taste that enhances the food cooked with glutamates [14]. The salt form of glutamic acid which are the glutamates, can undergo ionization and amplify the flavour concentration to compliment meat products [15]. Relatively new to the scientific world, kokumi describes a certain mouthfeel the body detects through calcium channels on your tongue. The breakdown of how it happens cannot be specifically pinpointed but it has been inferred that there is some relation of the quantity of γ-L-glutamyl peptides that correspond to the calcium channels that are sensitive to glutathione, an antioxidant[16] . Since it was recently discovered, it may be considered as the sixth sense of taste; however, the tongue cannot distinguish its taste as many scientists cannot pinpoint what it actually tastes like[1].

Three types of Miso Paste

Types of Miso[edit]

There are many types of miso, both the composition and the processing of the miso, particularly the fermentation, drastically effect flavour and colour of the final product. There are 5 traditionally common miso types. The first three are classified as rice miso, since the paste is mainly consisting of rice. There is red salty rice miso, also known as sekishoku-karakuchikei komemiso in Japanese, thin-coloured salty rice miso (tanshoku-karakuchikei komemiso), and weak salty rice miso (komeamamiso)[17]. Two other traditional types of miso include barley miso (mugimiso) and soy miso (mamemiso). There are also other miso pastes made from different legumes such as peas and beans.[18]

Rice Miso[edit]

Rice miso is generally made with a mixture of rice koji, salt, yeast and steamed soybeans[19]. This mixture is then left to ferment and age. There are 3 types of rice miso; red salty rice miso, thin-coloured salty rice miso, and weakly salty rice miso. The weakly salted type is usually aged for only about 20 days whereas the red salty rice miso is aged for 12 months and thin-coloured misos are aged for 6 months.[17] The weak miso paste usually results in an off-white, almost yellow colour. The thin-coloured miso is a light and bright yellow colour. The red salty miso has a red-brown colour. The red salty rice miso and the thin-coloured salty rice miso are known to have similar aromas.[17]

Barley and Soy Miso[edit]

Barley miso is a mixture composed of mostly barley koji and cooked soybeans with salt. This miso is generally aged for about 12 months. Soy miso is most intense in flavour out of all the miso, and is made of a mixture of mostly soy koji and cooked soybeans with salt[19]. The colour that is generated through the aging process of miso intensifies the longer the mixture ages. Soy miso for example is the darkest in colour since it is usually aged for over 3 years, usually resembling a deep brown colour.

Pea and Bean Miso[edit]

Peas and beans are in the same family of the soybean, in other words the legume family. The process of making pea and bean miso is similar to that of soy miso. The peas and beans are washed and soaked in water, dehulled and cooked in water. The legumes are then ground up and salt, water and koji are added. A small amount of miso made from barley and soybeans is also added to aid in the fermentation. Pea and bean miso are both usually light brown in colour, similar to the traditional soybean miso. Pea miso has a slightly sweet smell but is fairly similar to the bean miso in terms of taste.[18]

Nutritional Analysis[edit]

The following nutritional analysis is for 1 ounce of miso, which is around how much is in one bowl of miso soup.  

File:Miso Nutrition Facts.png
Miso Nutrition Facts



Most of the carbohydrates in miso is dietary fibre[15]. While fibre is not processed by our body for energy it has a variety of health benefits. Fibre helps keep waste products together and aids in clearing the colon. Increased fibre can also lead to a decrease in blood pressure.[20] The remaining carbohydrates are accounted for from starches and sugars[15], both of which are naturally found in miso. During the fermentation of the soybeans and rice starches are broken down into sugars, accounting for the fructose and maltose also found in miso.[6] 


Most of the fat found in miso is polyunsaturated fat[15], including essential fatty acids like Omega-3 and Omega-6. These fats are essential because they are used in vital body processes yet they cannot be produced in the body and therefore must be consumed in our diet. Increased Omega-3 consumption has been linked to various health benefits, like decreasing bad cholesterol; however more studies are needed to provide conclusive evidence.[21] There is no cholesterol found in miso[15], which is an asset because high levels of blood cholesterol have been linked to heart disease[22].  


3g of protein is found in one ounce miso[15]. Although in the first world most individuals meet or exceed their recommended daily intake of protein in developing countries protein consumption can be a major concern[23]. Individuals looking to increase their protein consumption may consider miso as cheeper alternative to other sources.   


File:Minerals in Miso.png
Minerals in Miso

Micronutrients are non-energy providing and essential to consume because we cannot produce them in the body; they include minerals and vitamins. Minerals provided by miso include Sodium, Manganese, Copper, Zinc, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Iron, Selenium, Potassium, and Calcium[15]. The focus will be on Sodium, as the other minerals are provided in trivial amounts. One ounce of miso provides 1044mg of sodium[15]. The AI or adequate intake, which is a value given for the recommended intake of a nutrient accounting for the need for 90% of the population which takes into account the amount of nutrient needed to do vital processes as well as the bodies ability to produce or recycle the nutrient[24], for sodium is 1500mg in adults (14-50 years)[16] while the UL or upper limit, which is the amount of a nutrient that can be consumed before adverse health effects begin for 90% of the population[24], is 2300mg/day for adults[16]. This means that one and a half

File:Vitamins in Miso.png
Vitamins in Miso

servings of miso would more than meet the AI for sodium. This is of concern as most Canadian (as well as Americans) over-consume sodium. Excess sodium can lead to hypernatremia which is a sodium imbalance in the blood[25]. Hypernatremia can lead to hypertension, which is high blood pressure[26], in salt-sensitive people. It is recommended to increase water intake with high sodium intake, as the water can help to rebalance the sodium in the blood.

Vitamins provided by miso are Vitamin K, Choline, and various B Vitamins, including Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, B6, Folate, and Pantothenic Acid[15]. The focus will be on Vitamin K, as the other vitamins are present in insignificant amounts. One ounce of miso provides 8.2 mcg of Vitamin K[15]. The AI for Vitamin K is 90 mcg for adult females and 120 mcg for adult males[27]. Vitamin K is not easily found in food products because it is produced by bacteria. It follows that Vitamin K is found in miso however because miso is fermented by bacteria. Vitamin K plays an essential role in various body processes, including coagulation and bone formation[28].

Health Benefits[edit]

Health and Status[edit]

From a Noble Food to a Pharma Food:

Originally, Miso was attributed with having spiritual properties, because of its nutritional benefits[5]. It was also believed that miso had medicinal effects, but was used mostly by monks, not healers[1]. It was only prepared by Buddhist monks, in temples[5].  However, the same properties that made miso such an elite and 'spiritual' food in the eighth century now attributes miso to belonging to a new food trend category: pharma foods[29]. This is due to the health benefits about miso, discovered in the 20th and 21st century (see "modern medical benefits").

Wartime Attraction[edit]

A Caloric Filler[edit]

During the early warring periods, such as the Kamakura period in the twelfth century, the Muromachi period in the thirteenth century, and The Warring States period in fifteenth and sixteenth century, miso was considered to be a victory-inducing food[2] because it was a cheap and effective source of caloric content, in addition to being highly nutritious[2].

Radioprotective Qualities[edit]

As a result of the second world war, it was revealed that miso holds radioprotective qualities[8]. When the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki during the war, it was discovered that the people who were unaffected by radiation disease had gained radioprotective effects from the wakame in miso[8]. Miso’s status as an important health food and global phenomenon was secured when this epidemiological and experimental evidence became available in English and became known and researched in Western countries[8]. Accordingly, miso export Europe and the United States increased, especially after  it was believed and discovered that miso consumption minimized the effects from the exposure to radiation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986[7]. The post-war scientific research on miso’s health properties led to an abundance of discoveries contributing to miso’s globalization and status as an imperative and advantageous food.

Modern Medical Benefits[edit]

Today miso is regarded as a health-food staple and beauty food because it helps prevent gastric disorders, improve metabolism, reduce toxins, reduce the effects of aging and prevent high blood pressure[2][7][8]. From its ability to prevent stomach cancer and heart disease[7], to its capability to remove heavy metals and alkeline metals from the body[7], and even its believed ability to protect from radiation poisoning[8], miso’s undisputed health benefits have served the Japanese people throughout history.

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  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Chuo-ku, Tsukiji (2012). "Miso". Tokyo – via Japanese Miso Promotion Board.
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