Is Soy Sauce Vegan? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

Many vegans debate whether soy sauce is actually vegan, and I’ve noticed some confusion stems from the claim that soy sauce contains anchovy’s or fish sauce, but that’s not true for mainstream soy sauce. 

In general, soy sauce is suitable for vegans as it’s made from soybeans, a member of the legume family. However, you should do always your due diligence by checking the ingredients of each soy sauce, and when in doubt, check with the brand to verify if it’s truly vegan. 

We’re going to look at soy sauce in detail and learn how it’s made.

What is Soy Sauce? 

soy sauce

Soy sauce is an Asian condiment that is available in different varieties that range from light to dark, and from thick to light.

Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce won its place as a kitchen staple throughout East and Southeast Asia before taking over the West in the late 50s thanks to Yuzaburo Mogi, which is, at the time of me writing this article, the current Chairman and honorary CEO of Kikkoman, the world’s largest producer of soy sauce.

Yuzaburo Mogi increased the popularity of soy sauce in the West by hiring chefs to create recipes that included the sauce. He then sent those recipes to local newspapers, which encouraged housewives to cut them out and go shopping for the ingredients. 

Weirdly enough, even though it was a Japanese that popularized the sauce, the roots of soy sauce can be traced back to a sauce called “jan” in ancient China.

“Jan” started with people pickling raw ingredients in salt to preserve them, and they were based on fruit, vegetables, grains, seaweed, meat, and fish. The variety made from grains like rice, wheat, and soybeans is believed to be what eventually led to soy sauce. 

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Varieties of Soy Sauce

There are several varieties of soy sauces and it’s impossible to tell exactly the origin of them all; however, you can say that they stem from two countries: China and Japan. 

In both countries, soy sauce is made from cleaned and soaked soya beans, then steamed, and mixed with a yeast culture and wheat flour before being fermented for up to two years, filtered, and finally bottled. 

Chinese Soy Sauce

There are three types of Chinese soy sauce:

  • Light soy sauce is a thin, reddish-brown liquid taken from the initial extraction. It’s light and has a delicate but salty flavor with a rich soy aroma. This one is widely used in Chinese cuisine, along with rice vinegar and Shaoxing wine.
  • Dark soy sauce has been left to mature longer and had caramel added to it. It has a darker color, and it’s also sweeter than the lighter variety. Yes, it’s used to flavor a few Chinese dishes, but it’s mostly used to darken the color of sauces, fried rice, noodles, etc. 
  • Thick soy sauce is made with sugar and more wheat during the fermentation process. It’s sometimes thickened with starch, and it has a very sweet flavor. It’s often used in stir-fried dishes and dips. 

Japanese Soy Sauce

There are also three types of Japanese soy sauce: 

  • Usukuchi is lighter than most soy sauces, but it’s not lighter in taste. It’s actually saltier than the Chinese light soy sauce, and it’s made from equal amounts of soybeans and wheat. 
  • Temari is dark, thick, and less salty, but it still has a strong flavor. It’s a byproduct of the production of miso paste and unlike other soy sauces, it contains no added wheat. However, it’s made with a higher volume of soybeans. 
  • Shoyu is a variety that is aged for up to two years, and it’s typically the most flavorful. Unlike Temari, it contains added wheat and tends to be used as an all-purpose cooking soy sauce. 

They’re different from Chinese soy sauces so if you’re planning to cook Japanese dishes, then it’s probably a good idea to strictly use Japanese soy sauce, otherwise, you might not end with the exact taste you’re looking for. 

 

How is Soy Sauce Made?

Today soy sauce is made using two methods: the traditional brewing method, or fermentation, and the non-brewed method, or via chemical-hydrolyzation.  

The traditional brewing method usually takes up to 6 months to complete, and it results in a transparent, delicately colored broth with a balanced flavor and aroma.

This method consists of three steps, including koji-making, brine fermentation, and refinement. 

  1. Koji-making: In this step, the soybeans and wheat are carefully selected before being crushed and blended under an optimal condition. Water is added to the mixture, which is boiled to cook the soybeans and wheat until they’re properly softened. The mixture is then cooled before a proprietary seed mold called Aspergillus is added, where it matures until a culture of soy, wheat, and mold is finally prepared.
  2. Brine fermentation: The mixture is added to fermentation tanks, where it’s mixed with water and salt to create a mash called moromi. Lactic acid and yeast are then added to promote further fermentation. The moromi must ferment for several months, so by that time the soy and wheat are dissolved into a semi-liquid, reddish-brown “mash”.  
  3. Refinement: Once the moromi has fermented, the raw soy sauce is separated from the cake residue of soy and wheat using a filtration system. The liquid that emerges is pasteurized, which helps prolong its shelf life and add additional aromatic and flavor compounds before the sauce is finally bottled. 

The non-brewed method takes only two days, but the end product is often opaque with a harsh flavor and chemical aroma. This method also requires three steps, but they’re less complex. 

  1. The first step involves boiling the soybeans in hydrochloric acid for 15-20 hours to artificially break down the soy proteins and remove the amino acids. Once the maximum amount of amino acids has been extracted, the mixture is cooled to stop the hydrolytic reaction. 
  2. The amino acid liquid is neutralized with sodium carbonate, pressed through a filter, mixed with active carbon, and purified through filtration.
  3. Corn syrup, caramel color, and salt are added to the mixture to obtain the right color and flavor before being refined and bottled. 

Soy sauce produced via a non-brewed method is unhealthy and doesn’t have the desired flavor profile as those produced through a traditional brewing method. 

The difference in taste comes from the fact that in a non-brewed method, the proteins are converted into amino acids, while in brewed soy sauce, the amino acids stick together as peptides, which leads to a better flavor. 

The brewed soy sauce also has alcohols, esters, and other compounds which provide it with a different aroma, as well as feel in your mouth.

In addition to these two methods, there is also a semi-brewed method where hydrolyzed soy proteins are partially fermented with a wheat mixture.   

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Ingredients in Soy Sauce

There are typically five ingredients present in soy sauce:

Soybeans

Soy sauce is obviously made with soybeans. It’s the protein within the soybeans that provides the sauce with its unique flavor through the fermentation process.

Though, as we’ve mentioned, sometimes soy sauces are created via a chemical process that doesn’t require fermentation, so the flavor of the soy sauce can also derive from amino acids converted from protein. 

Wheat

In many traditional recipes, the wheat is blended in equal parts with the soybeans. It is usually pulverized and added to the mash along with crushed soybeans. Some traditional soy sauce recipes, like Temari, do not use wheat, and the same goes for recipes that are produced through a chemical process. 

Salt & Water

Salt and water are used in both brewed and non-brewed methods. In the brewed method they’re added to the ingredient mixture to create a mash called moroni, so they’re essential to creating the brine in which the fermentation process takes place. 

Fungi and Bacteria Culture

Fungi and bacteria are not necessarily an ingredient, but they’re essential for traditionally brewed soy sauces as they initiate and further fermentation. For example, one filamentous fungus spore that is often used in the making of soy sauce is Aspergillus Oryzae, also referred to as koji.

Can Vegans Consume Soy Sauce?

Yes, vegans can consume soy sauce, as it doesn’t contain animal ingredients. 

However, some people seem to believe that soy sauce contains fish, but that is a misconception we must discard as it’s no longer true for mainstream soy products. 

During the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China, they used to ferment fish with salt to condiment food, and soybeans were actually used in the fermentation process. 

Eventually, they started using soy paste and its by-product soy sauce, with soybeans turning into the main ingredient. Fish wasn’t completely discarded, but it developed separately into fish sauce. 

Therefore, yes, soy sauce doesn’t include animal ingredients, and it’s suitable for vegans. 

There was a scuffle between a PETA and Kikkoman a few years back because PETA found out that Kikkoman carried out animal testing to substantiate the health claims related to its products. 

Naturally, that raised a big controversial discussion in the vegan and animal rights community and many people began assuming that was the case for every soy product, which is not. 

You might have a few shady companies that might conduct animal testing even though they sell soy products, but you have to do your own research to find out if they’re doing something unethical behind the scenes, but I’d say that for most companies that is not an issue. 

Kikkoman, for instance, no longer funds animal testing, much because PETA and the communities that support their view pressured them into dropping animal testing, so if you wish to consume Kikkoman’s soy sauce, there’s no problem for you to do so. 

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Which Soy Sauce Should Vegans Choose?

Not every soy sauce is the same, and if you have to choose between different soy sauces, I’d recommend that you pick one produced via the traditional brewing method. 

Unfortunately, many soy sauces are produced through a non-brewed method which allows companies to churn out soy sauce in a matter of days to meet demand, but the quality is comparatively low, and the nutritional value is subpar, so it’s not as flavorful or healthy. 

The non-brewed method involves creating soy sauce through rapid hydrolysis, which means boiling soybeans in hydrochloric acid for at least 15 hours, so the result isn’t anything like real soy sauce that is produced over the course of months. 

Often, because the result of a non-brewed soy sauce is severely lacking, they mix in real soy sauce to enhance the quality and look of the product. They also include other unhealthy ingredients such as corn syrup and food colorings, which are not used in brewed soy sauces. 

Therefore, choose a brewed soy sauce, particularly if you want a better tasting and healthier soy sauce. 

Conclusion

Fortunately, soy sauce is a liquid condiment that is suitable for vegans; no ingredient of animal origin is included in the product, not even throughout the production phase. 

Some soy sauce brands, however, might have some involvement with animal testing, so this is something you have to research on your own. 

With that being said, you should be fine with most soy sauce brands, including Kikkoman, which used to conduct animal testing to substantiate health claims for their products, though not anymore.


Soy Sauce FAQs

Is Soy Sauce Gluten-Free? 

Unfortunately, soy sauces are not usually gluten-free because manufacturers often blend soybeans and wheat to create a mash that is fermented for a few months. However, Temari, which is a soy sauce of Japanese origin, does not usually contain wheat, which is included in most recipes. 

Is Soy Sauce Healthy? 

Soy sauce can be part of a healthy whole-food plant-based diet, however, most soy sauces typically contain a high sodium content, which is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure. 

Though, to be fair, you can also choose soy sauces with reduced sodium, especially if you have a diet where you routinely include salt. 

Is Soy Sauce Keto?

Most soy sauces contain about 1 gram of carbohydrates per 1 tbsp, which is adequate for people predominantly following a keto diet. However, some soy sauces have a high carbohydrate content because they’ve been sweetened, so keep that in mind when choosing one that is keto. 

Does Soy Sauce Contain Alcohol? 

Yes, soy sauce contains about 2% alcohol, which is not purposefully added but is a result of the fermentation process; this means that soy sauce is not halal. 

Alexandre Valente

Hey there! My name is Alex and I've been vegan for more than five years! I've set up this blog because I'm really passionate about veganism and living a more eco-conscious life. Hopefully, I can use this website as a channel to help you out on your own journey!

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