What is the sodium content of soy sauce?

sodium in soy sauce

Soy sauce is the most widely used product made from the soy beans. It is absolutely essential for many Asian cousines, but what is the actual sodium content of this condiment?

What is soy sauce?

As late as in the mid-1820s a rumour circulated, chiefly among sailors, that soy sauce was produced from beetles and cockroaches. Naturally, soy sauce is made from the soybean (it is believed that the shape and color of this plant in its dried form could have led some to believe that the sauce was extracted from insects).

Soy sauce is prepared by mixing soybeans and various types of grain with mold cultures and yeast (ocal variations are too numerous to mention). Then the mixture undergoes the process of fermentation (hydrolisis is also commonly used today). The traditional way of making soy sauce involved leaving the mixture in jars out in the sun. Additional processes used are brewing, pressing and pasteurization. Salt, apart from being an important flavor inducing ingredient, is also required in a process known as high-salt fermentation of soy sauce. The main reason for salt being used is the need to supress (inhibit) some kinds of micro-organisms, so that other microcultures can actively participate in fermentation.

According to a popular anecdote, Louis XVI was once treated to a dinner in which every single meal was prepared exclusively using potatoes. It can be safely said that today the same could be achieved with products of the soy bean. And yet, sauce remains the most common product made from soy. Soy sauce is not only used directly as a condiment or during cooking. It is, for instance, one of the ingredients in Worcestershire Sauce (which has been produced since 1837). It is also used to make many other popular condiments, such as catchup (in fact, there is a long history of confusion between the two). Since 1965, soy sauce was used in teryaki sauce (Diamond Teryaki being the first commercially distributed product of this kind).

Soy sauce is known under dozens of other names: bentang, East India sauce, ganjang, India ketchup, Joppa soy, moromi, murasaki etc.

Brief history of soy sauce

Soy sauce originated in Asia more than two thousand years ago. Both in China and in Korea the technology behind this condiment was perfected over the centuries. Japan was likely late in adopting soy sauce, which was introduced in the 7th century CE by Buddhist monks who brought along vegeterianism. For them, soy sauce replaced Japan’s traditional fish based sauce (condiments made from fermented fish were indeed popular in many coutries, including Ancient Rome).

Originally the main purpose of soy sauce was to stretch salt, a natural resource that was often expensive and difficult to obtain. As such, soy sauce could be used with absolutely anything – and anything was often on the menu, because the storied meal of a Japanese samurai (also a typical Mongolian or Chinese warrior) was prepared in his own helmet. Boiled water was combined with literally any product on hand. This is what’s known today as mitzutaki. One can surmise that a strong flavoring in the form of soy sauce used to bring some consistency to the taste of this meal (this legendary dish made of anything present resonated with old Kikkoman commercials which recommended adding soy sauce to “just about anything.")

The presence of soy sauce in Japan is particularly important when one considers the eventual spread of this product around the world. Starting in the 17th century, Dutch merchants were the only ones permitted to trade with Japan, and one of the popular commodities that they distributed was soy sauce. Originally it was sold to nearby Asian ports, but eventually European markets developed the taste for this product. The Dutch simplified the Japanese word shoyu and it made its way into most modern languages. Around 1750, soy sauce arrived in North America after gaining popularity in Europe.

Sodium content in soy sauce

As we have already mentioned, salt is an important part of the technological process that culminates in a little bottle filled with dark brown liquid. Reduced salt variations certainly exist. In fact, there is an alternative low salt process of makign soy sauce in which fast fermentation at high temperatures allows for less salt being used.

According to USDA, 3.4 US fl oz of soy sauce contains 6g of sodium. Since nobody (one would hope) consumes soy sauce by the onces, it’s more useful to think using smaller measurements:

1 tsp = 291mg of sodium 1 individual packet = 481mg of sodium 1 tbsp = 879mg of sodium

As a reminder, the daily recommended amount of sodium is 2,300mg. Since salt is omnipresent in out diet, it is almost a guarantee that even the smallest serving of soy sauce will bring your daily consumption to the level that is above what’s actually recommended (still rather high, according to some medical opinions).

Healthier alternatives to soy sauce

Despite a popular legend, soy sauce does not contain more sodium than salt, because sodium is only one of the sauce’s ingredients. In theory, it is more reasonable to flavor your meal with one teaspoon of soy sauce than one teaspon of salt. However, the sodium content in soy sauce is extremely high and if you are at all health conscious it is worth looking into replacements.

The first obvious choice is low-sodium soy sauce. The difference in actual numbers can be marginal. Kikkoman Less Sodium Soy Sauce contains 590 mg per serving, compared to 900 mg in the traditional recipe. This is still pretty high.

One of the best soy sauce substitutes are dried mushrooms. They have a distint flavor, but are virtually sodium free. If some saltiness is required, you can introduce a carefully measured amount of salt during cooking.

Worcestershire Sauce, as we have already mentioned, is prepared with soy sauce. However, the amount of sodium in this common condiment is considerably lower: 167 mg per tbsp. This is easily one fifth of the sodium found in soy sauce!

If you still want to stick to the general flavor of soy sauce, but want to know how much salt is going into it – why not make your own sauce? Try simmering the following ingredients in a pot:

  • 2 tablespoons of low sodium beef bouillon
  • 1 teaspoon molasses
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • Pinch of ground ginger
  • Pinch of garlic powder
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Experiment with potassium chloride salt or any other generic salt substitute. These often have a metallic taste, but strong flavors can successfully mask it.