Soy Sauce vs. Tamari
Stir fry, sushi, marinades, and sashimi: the uses for soy sauce are endless. This Asian condiment is commonly known for its salty taste, dark color, and versatility in cooking. Soy sauce has been around for hundreds of years, way before it made its way onto American grocery store shelves. Traditionally, soy sauce is made by brewing or fermenting a mixture of soy beans, wheat, salt and water, a process that can take days, months or even years, creating a uniquely savory flavor profile. Not all soy sauces are created equally, however. Although the best and most traditional soy sauces contain only four ingredients, some chemically produced soy sauces contain extra additives such as hydrochloric acid, caramel color and corn syrup. These ingredients are typically used to accelerate the production of soy sauce while still achieving relatively the same color, taste, and texture.
Overall, soy sauce is a low-nutrient, low-calorie food. One tablespoon contains on average 10 calories, 1g of carbohydrate, 1-2g of protein, and no fat. But let’s address the elephant in the room: salt, aka sodium. Soy sauce gets a bad reputation due to high concentrations of sodium, and let’s be honest – the amount of sodium in soy sauce is astronomical. One tablespoon of regular soy sauce contains about 960mg of sodium. That’s more than 40% of the upper limit of the daily recommended value for adults. Although stimulating to our taste buds, salt plays a larger role in soy sauce production than flavor alone. Salt is a necessary ingredient to the fermentation process, and it also protects and preserves the finished product. Unfortunately, diets high in sodium can contribute to hypertension and worsening cardiovascular disease. The good news is less sodium options are available. In the production process salt can either be taken out post-brewing, or less salt added in the beginning with either alcohol, sugar, or both added in as a preservative. While it’s not a low sodium food by any means, lower sodium soy sauce contains 35-40% less sodium than traditional soy sauce. Another suggestion is to limit your portion to 1 teaspoon, which still provides a lot of flavor.
Relatively newer on the market and less familiar to most, is soy sauce’s Japanese cousin tamari. Tamari has a very similar taste, color and consistency to soy sauce, but its claim to fame is that it is typically made without wheat, making it a great option for those who have celiac disease, wheat allergy, or other gluten intolerance. Like soy sauce, water, soy beans, and salt are key ingredients to making tamari, but alcohol is typically used in place of wheat to aid in fermentation. Be aware, however, that not all tamari is gluten free and it is important to read labels before purchasing.
When comparing the nutrition labels of the most common soy sauce and tamari, the only real difference between the two is that tamari contains about 20mg more sodium per serving than soy sauce. While lower sodium versions of tamari are available, one brand of less sodium tamari still contains 710mg of sodium per tablespoon – 135mg more than the less sodium soy sauce. Tamari is also slightly more expensive than soy sauce averaging $0.09-0.10 more per ounce than soy sauce.
It’s hard to say who wins between soy sauce and tamari. With regards to overall nutrition, both are low in calories and macronutrients and high in sodium. When choosing the less sodium alternatives of both soy sauce and tamari, soy sauce seems to be the better option – but only by a hair. With an almost identical set of ingredients and nutrient profile, tamari can be simply summarized as a gluten-free version of soy sauce. So, if for any reason you are avoiding wheat, tamari may be the choice for you! Although very similar, some say the tastes of tamari and soy sauce are different enough to stock both in your pantry to use on different dishes. Most importantly, with regards to sodium – less is best! Choose less sodium options whenever they are available.
Note: Another alternative to consider is liquid aminos, which can be made from soy or coconut (both are vegan and gluten-free, though typically more expensive than soy sauce). Soy-based aminos may contain slightly higher amounts of sodium, but coconut aminos have only 270 mg per tablespoon, offering significantly less sodium in a serving.
*The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 2,300mg of sodium per day for healthy individuals ages 14 and older.
Contributor: Kendel Rose-Chojnacki, UWGB Dietetic Intern