Every week, Wendyl Nissen takes a readily available packaged food item and decodes what the label tells you about its contents.

A cup of miso soup is a nice thing to have on a cold winter's day and many people have replaced coffee, tea or instant soup powders with this product to have at work. It is low in calories at about 25 calories per serve, low in fat and is thought to be very nutritious.

But some of my more astute readers have been looking at the ingredients labels and are worried that not all miso soup is just miso soup. Are there other additives in there they need to be concerned about?

Traditionally Japanese miso soup is made out of stock and miso paste and the ingredients vary according to the seasons, regional flavours and personal preference.


In this country we make our miso by using miso paste which is made out of fermented soybeans, rice or barley with salt and a fungus or mould. It comes in different varieties of red or white, or both mixed together.

I've chosen two miso pastes available at my local supermarket. The first comes in 12 sachets to which you simply add boiling water. The second is a paste from which you use 1 tbsp per cup of boiling water.

Rice miso
This tells us that this miso soup comes from rice rather than soybeans or barley.

Wakame seaweed
This is a seaweed commonly found in Japanese soups. It is also known as sea mustard or undaria and has an interesting history in this country. It was declared an unwanted organism after it was discovered in Wellington Harbour in 1987. It is thought to have arrived accidentally via shipping from Asia.

You can find it growing on a boat or on our coastlines if you want to have a go at harvesting some yourself for your miso. Recently some permits have been issued for it to be farmed here.

This is where miso starts looking a little unhealthy. In each 18g serve of this product you will consume 723mg of sodium, which is a big chunk of the 920mg to 1600mg which is recommended for our daily intake. If you are on a low-salt diet best steer clear of this.

Protein hydrolysis
There is no ingredient which matches this name but it probably means hydrolysed protein, which is known as HVP. This is created when maize and soy are boiled in hydrochloric acid and then broken down with sodium hydroxide to release the protein. It is used in foods as a flavour enhancer or as a filler.

Bonito extract
This will provide a fishy flavour and is extracted from the bonito, which is a species of tuna.

The natural fermentation of the soybeans, barley and rice will be the reason for this. It will also act as a preservative.

Flavour enhancers (621, 631, 627)
Ouch. Here we have the trifecta of chemical additives commonly put in food to make it taste better.

The first is MSG (621). The NZ Food Standards Authority recognises that some people who consume it may experience symptoms such as burning sensations, numbness, chest pain, headache, nausea and asthma but it says it is okay to have in food as long as it is labelled. They advise people who have symptoms to avoid it where possible.

The second one is disodium guanylate (631), which is commercially prepared from yeast extract or sardines and enhances flavours reducing the amount of salt needed. Asthmatics and gout sufferers are advised to avoid this product.

And the third is disodium inosinate (627), which is commonly prepared from meat or fish but sometimes from starch.

Soybeans (GM free)
This tells us that most of the miso paste comes from fermented soybeans which are not genetically modified.

The paste could also contain fermented rice or ground-up rice added for flavour.

Like the other miso paste this has a lot of salt and the sodium level works out at about the same per gram as the Nama Wakame.

As above.

My recommendations
The Fukuyama miso paste is a much more pure form of miso for making soup. It has only four ingredients as opposed to nine for the Nama Wakame. The Fukuyama will not give you natural flavours such as seaweed and bonito but it also won't give you three flavour enhancers including MSG. Both have the same calories and both work out at about the same amount of salt per gram. My recommendation would be to go for the Fukuyama, even though you have to keep it in its pottle in the fridge (use 1 tbsp per cup) rather than the convenience of opening up a sachet. And if you want extra seaweed, add it in yourself.