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Food of the Month: Miso Magic by John Belleme

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Miso Soup
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Miso, a fermented soyfood, is one of the world's most delicious, versatile, and medicinal foods. This ancient Far Eastern staple began appearing on natural food store shelves in the West about 30 years ago and has established itself as an essential ingredient in the natural cuisine. It is no wonder that miso has become popular among health-conscious Americans. In addition to its great flavor and versatility, the daily use of miso is credited with numerous health benefits including lowering cholesterol, alkalinizing the blood and canceling the effects of some carcinogens. Furthermore, unpasteurized miso is abundant in beneficial microorganisms and enzymes that aid digestion and food assimilation. Miso is simple to use and can enhance every course from hors d'oeuvres to desserts, from basic macrobiotic cooking to gourmet fare.


How is Miso Made?

Traditionally, miso is made by combining koji (cultured grain or soybeans) with cooked soybeans, salt, and water, and allowing the mixture to ferment in wooden casks at natural temperatures. Gradually, enzymes supplied by the koji, along with microorganisms from the environment, break down the complex structure of beans and grains into readily digestible amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars. By varying the type of koji used (usually rice, barley, or soybean) and the proportions of ingredients in the recipe, traditional makers are able to create a wide range of misos, from light and sweet to dark and robust.

Types Of Miso

Although there are a few exceptions, misos can be divided into two groups based on color and taste. Sweet miso is usually light in color (beige or yellow) and high in carbohydrates. It is marketed as "mellow miso," sweet miso," and "sweet white miso." Because it is high in koji and low in soybeans and salt, sweet miso ferments in just two to eight weeks, depending on the exact recipe and temperature of aging. These misos developed and became popular around Kyoto and Japan's southern regions. The sweet, light misos or blends of light and dark misos are perfect in summer soups, dips, spreads, sauces and salad dressings.

Miso with a higher salt content, lower koji content, and proportionately more soybeans is darker in color and saltier in taste than sweet miso. It must be fermented longer, usually at least one summer but as long as two to three years in very cold climates. This type of miso is marketed as "red miso,", "brown rice miso," and "barley miso." Soybean misos such as mame and hatcho are also dark and savory. Salty, long-aged misos were more popular in Japan's central and northern regions. In the West we find their earthy tones and hearty flavor excellent for winter soups, stews and sauces.

The Nutritional and Medicinal Benefits of Miso

Touted for centuries as a folk remedy for weak digestion, cancer, radiation sickness, tobacco poisoning, acidic conditions, low libido, and several types of intestinal infections, miso's reputation as one of nature's most healing foods has been confirmed by modern medical science. These studies show what folk healers have known for centuries. It is not any one particular component of miso that makes it such an effective healing food, but rather a complex combination of ingredients and a unique double fermentation process that transforms soybeans and grains into a potent medicine. And although miso can now be found in most natural food stores and is an important ingredient in natural food cookbooks, it is still greatly underrated as a medicinal food.

  • Miso Helps Protect the body Against Atomic Radiation and Heavy Metal Poisoning. Researchers have discovered that miso contains dipilocolonic acid, an alkaloid that chelates heavy metals, such as radioactive strontium, and discharges them from the body.
  • Early Population Studies Show Miso is a Potent Medicine - A study of over a quarter of a million Japanese men and women showed that those who ate miso soup every day had fewer cases of certain types of cancer.
  • Isoflavones: The Silver Bullet in Soyfoods - During the 90's there has been an explosion of exciting research pointing to the extraordinary health benefits of soyfoods in general and miso in particular. These studies have discovered that the urine of people who eat these foods has a high concentration of a potent anticancer agent called genistein, a plant biochemical belonging to a group called isoflavones.
  • Miso has 25 Times More Genistein - Miso has about 25 times as much genistein as unfermented soyfoods, such as soy milk and tofu. Researchers believe that during fermentation microbes activate genistein's processor molecule, converting it to the active anticancer substance.
  • Miso Reduces the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease - A body of more than 50 scientific studies has prompted the United States Food and Drug Administration to endorse the heart benefits of soyfoods. Since miso has about 25 times as much isoflavones, it should only take about a gram of miso protein to have the same cholesterol lowering effect as at least four servings of other non-fermented soyfoods. This is about one teaspoon of miso or the amount needed to make just one bowl of miso soup.
  • Miso Protects Cells From Free Radicals and Aging - Miso is a powerful antioxidant aggressively scavenging damaging free radicals from tissues. Miso also protects cell membranes from aging and therefore is a good natural agent for resisting aging.
  • The Miracle of Lactobacillus Fermentation -Yet another key to miso's effectiveness as a medicine may be found in the unique lactobacillus fermentation process by which it is made. Not only does this process produce more genistein, but numerous studies have shown that lactobacillus fermentation of food increases the quantity, availability, digestibility and assimilability of nutrients. What's more, lactobacillus fermentation kills dangerous pathogens both in the foods before they are eaten and in the intestines.
  • Miso is High in Mineral and Vitamins - Miso is a good source of iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and some B vitamins. Miso also facilitates the body's absorption of calcium and magnesium.
  • Miso is Effective in Reducing Chronic Pain - Unpublished clinical studies at John Hopkins University Medical School have shown that miso soup can reduce chronic pain. Also, macrobiotic counselors have reported that miso has reduced overall suffering in patients and helps promote calmness and tranquillity.

Let Tradition Be Your Guide

Miso Barrels

It's great when medical science confirms the medicinal properties of important traditional foods, but researchers are not even close to understanding the importance of miso. Miso is a nourishing, high energy, whole food that helps maintain health and vitality. And because of the magic of lactic acid fermentation, miso is much more than the sum of its parts. During fermentation, the complex proteins, oils, and carbohydrates of grains and soybeans are broken down into more readily digestible amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. This is why miso is considered an excellent food for people with a weak digestion and is still used by traditional Japanese women for weaning.

Even today, in some parts of China and Japan drinking miso soup every day is associated with a long, healthy life. Starting the day with miso soup is said to alkalinize the body and help neutralize the acidic condition caused by eating meat and sugar and drinking alcohol. For quick relief, miso is like a traditional alka-seltzer. Also, once established in the intestines, the acid-loving bacteria found in abundance in sweet, light, unpasteurized misos promotes health and stamina. For smokers, miso is thought to rapidly clear nicotine from the body, and miso broth is still used in Japan to clean tar from smoker's pipes. Research aside, let long tradition be your guide. Miso may be the world's most medicinal everyday food, and it tastes good, too!

For more about miso and miso cookery see The Miso Book, by John and Jan Belleme.

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