Is Japanese Food Healthy (Based on The Quality of Ingredients From Miso to Soy Sauce)?

Main image of the rice field in Japan courtesy of Catherine/RumpleTeaser

“Made in Japan” basically sums up the quality of most Japanese food ingredients, except if you don’t get what I mean by that, let me explain how that has anything to do with whether or not Japanese food is healthy.

I know one dude who thought when I cited aspects of Japanese food culture, he thought it reeked of idealism (his feelings) because dude does not understand the culture, let alone Japanese culture. Not surprising since his perspective, like the vast majority of us Murican’s is American-centric.

Japanese compete on quality over price.
So quite a few of the everyday products by the Japanese are non-GMO, organic, and have minimal to no preservatives. (except, Japanese do not market their products as American companies do).

Kikkoman soy sauce is non-GMO, has no preservatives, or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but you will not see Kikkoman actively marketing their product that way.

Culture is Defined as:

“The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”

Oxford Languages
Photo Description: a large luscious green field of wasabi (root) grown in an area with flowing water. There is an individual squatted down working in the field.
Grated wasabi beats that single sprig of decorative parsley on your steak. The Daio wasabi farm image by SK/irisphotos

Made in China, Japan, to the U.S. All Conjure Up Expectations

“Made in” embodies the country of origin of production, and that “made in” label also conjures up thoughts of the product being either: cheaply produced, well-engineered, high-quality (build materials/reliability), innovative, to “well at least it looks cool.” All these product attributes reflect on the culture of the country of origin.

Based on similar metrics as the ones I rattled off, Statista and Dalia Research ranked countries from 1 to 49th place (take it with a grain of salt).

  1. Germany
  2. Switzerland
  3. European Union

If you want to know how some of the other countries faired:

  • Japan (8th place)
  • United States (10th)
  • China (49th, or last place)

The Core Food Ingredients to Japanese Cuisine

From sukiyaki, miso soup, to sushi, you are bound to use any one of these or all these ingredients.

NOTE: Americanized Japanese food is not Japanese food, and if you want to know what some healthy Japanese foods are, Gurunavi has 8 dishes/ingredients you should seek out. I also listed 19 real Japanese dishes/foods.

The red icon denotes summaries if you are looking for a quick read.
Soy sauce: A liquid seasoning made of fermented (Aspergillus) soy beans, roasted crushed wheat, salt, and water.
MisoA paste made commonly of soy beans, salt, and koji (Aspergillus oryzae) although rice, barely, seaweed, and a number other ingredients are sometimes used.
MirinA fermented rice wine with a low alcohol content with a high sugar content is labeled as hon-mirin (aji-mirin is a cost-effective alternative that is widely available) .
SakeA fermented rice wine that utilizes polished rice that removes the bran. The ingredients consist of rice, water, and koji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae).
DashiIs the stock used throughout Japanese cuisine. The most common ones are made of kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna), niboshi (sardines) to a vegetarian version made of shiitake (mushroom).
Photo Description: a somewhat close-up shot of the simple ingredients necessary to product Japanese miso which is soybeans, salt, and koji.
Your ranch dressing requires a lot more than the 3 ingredients necessary to produce a miso. Image by Mattie Hagedorn,

What the Japanese Value in Regards to Food Ingredient Quality

American food culture has a clear and distinct market niche of foods heavily-marketed as healthy which is why it might be confusing to most Americans because many mainstream Japanese products are not so blatant with their product marketing. Although many commonly used products will employ and utilize ingredients that are:

  • Non-GMO.
  • Organic.
  • No additives (high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, to artificial coloring).
  • Minimally processed.
  • Regionally produced.

Not all of these attributes can be strictly attributed to being “healthier” such as non-GMO (ULProspector.com) or organic (Harvard Medical School), but there are potential arguments as to why it is better although regardless if “they are” or “are not,” American food producers are more than happy to cash in on this market.

Quality Is Considered an Inherent Component of Many Japanese Ingredients, Not Simply Marketing Buzzwords

Here are a few mainstream/common Japanese products not marketed (not blatantly labeled on the product packaging) solely under the guise of having no preservatives, non-GMO, to organic. The quality is instead considered an inherent component of the product, so you probably had no clue about the quality of the soy sauce you were using at your local sushi bar.

Many of these brands you may have had or come across, but many of these brands do not blatantly use buzzwords to market their products like American brands do under the guise of being healthy with “non-GMO, gluten-free, organic,” etc.

Kikkoman all-purpose soy sauce
“#1 brand in the world”
Non-GMO, naturally (traditionally) brewed, no preservatives or no high fructose corn syrup, kosher.
Yamasa tamari soy sauce
(*3) marketed towards Americans
Non-GMO and USDA organic. No wheat.
Hikari miso
“Japan’s number one natural and organic miso”
Non-GMO, triple certified organic (USDA, EC, and JAS).
Marukome miso
Since 1854
Non-GMO (organic alcohol, filtered water, and organic salt), all natural, gluten-free, kosher.
Gekkeikan Traditional
“The world’s most popular Junmai-shu”
No sulfites are any preservatives.
Yaegaki sake
Not a common brand in the U.S.
Non-GMO, additive free.
Takara mirin
“The #1 brand in Japan”
No *high-fructose corn syrup, sulfite free, kosher certified by the Orthodox Union.
Kikkoman Aji-mirin
A popular brand in the U.S.
Glucose syrup, water, alcohol, rice, corn syrup, and salt.
Ninben katsuobushi
A popular brand in the U.S.
(*1) Fermented skipjack tuna.
Hokkaido yamadashi wild kombu
A high-quality regional product
(*2) Sea kelp from Hokkaido, Japan.
(*1)The product information touts “no high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), yet corn syrup is part of their ingredients, so I had to research what the difference was, and the Kitchn explains it (it contains no fructose).
(*2) For more information regarding kombu to katsuobushi, the umami information center is where you will want to go for that.
(*3) Tamari is not widely popular in Japan and only makes up a 1% market share (wheat is what defines Japanese soy sauce over a Chinese soy sauce and tamari is wheat free).
Photo Description: several wooden bins contain a number of varieties of katsuobushi. The fermented and hardened fish fillets are shaved into paper thin shavings.
This is a where savory comes from bro, the skipjack tuna (a can of beer in chili or stuffed up a chicken butt is not the savory miracle ingredient you think it is). Image by Sophie/fofie57

American Food Culture of Gluten-Free to No MSG

GTFO with “no MSG” because MSG is a naturally occurring ingredient (this is why many products say “no added MSG.” Keyword on “added”) in cheeses, tomatoes, to aged beef, but it is often only associated with Asian food. 

So if you are going to be against MSG, like within American food culture, you can not selectively avoid and make a big deal out of an ingredient widely used by American food producers in products such as Dorito’s (snack foods), salad dressings, frozen meals, to fast food. I find a “diet” that is not applied across the board to be hypocritical, and if you want to hear more, you can read my rant on MSG

American food culture is barely 245 years old, where as many food cultures around the world are thousands of years old. Maybe this might be why Japan has the lowest obesity rate in the world (as of 2017) according to the OECD (the U.S. is number one).

OECD article

As for what I think of being gluten-free, if it makes you feel better, have at it because I have heard some credible information regarding the reduction of gluten for some groups of people although the Mayo Clinic finds that there’s little evidence that a gluten-free diet offers any particular health benefits.

Like MSG, blindly adhering to American food trends dictated by American food producers does compound my view that anybody who adheres to a gluten-free diet just because and does not have Celiac disease, IBS, ataxia, type 1 diabetes or HIV is potentially a douche.

Photo Description: a Kikkoman soy sauce billboard at an American baseball game (Yankees vs. Rays).
By Murica food standards, Kikkoman should be a Whole Foods poster child since it consists of only water, soybeans, wheat, and salt, is non-GMO, and has no preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup.

American Marketing Buzzwords Do Not Reflect Well on Us Americans Due to Our Low Life Expectancy

When it comes to the Japanese and Japanese food culture, many Japanese companies and ingredients have not hopped on the Murica bandwagon of actively marketing gluten-free to no MSG. This marketing trend is primarily an American thing, and looking at the data, we Americans are not the fittest and longest living nationality to back these trends (yes, I get that our entire population is not on this diet, but I am addressing the overall food culture).

NOTE: Your mayo and sauce covered sushi roll is Americanized Japanese food. Those rolls can not be found in Japan, and they are nothing like a futomaki (typically vegan to vegetarian), tekka (tuna), or kappa maki (cucumber) roll which are traditional Japanese rolls.

So how can American food producers dictate what is and what is not healthy? My guess? It is a profitable solution because our food culture does not have deep roots, is very hypocritical, and is always looking for the magic pill that thrives on buzzwords.

If Americans knew what a healthy diet is, why do we not rank in the top 10 or even in the top 30? Those spots belong to the Japanese and several other countries.

Life Expectancy by Country

1Hong KongHong Kong
United States
United States

How About the Fittest Countries According to the WHO

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and 168 countries Uganda and Finland are the most in shape countries although fit does not mean the healthiest (for some it is a condition born out of necessity).

Photo Description: on a beach side are with rocky and uniform surface lies a number of strips of konbu (seaweed).
If you have ever laid out in the sun to work on that farmer tan, you will know how konbu is produced (for you reclusive types, you even mimic the final process of kombu which is the aging in a dark room for years). Image by Shirokazan

The World’s Healthiest According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index

According to a number of factors from health risks such as smoking, high blood pressure and obesity; life expectancy; malnutrition, and causes of death. 169 economies were ranked by the Bloomberg Health Index, and these were the top 5 for 2020.

  1. Spain
  2. Italy
  3. Iceland
  4. Japan
  5. Switzerland

The United States ranked 35th.

The Least Obese Countries and the U.S. Ranks 38th

Based on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

  1. Japan, 3.7
  2. Korea, 5.3
  3. Italy, 9.8
  4. Switzerland, 10.3
  5. Norway, 12.0

The United States was last at 38.2

Photo Description: a large field of rice growing in a paddy. The green stalks are in the foreground with green mountains in the background with several tiny homes at the base.
A rice field in Akita prefecture, Japan (now you know where rice comes from). Image by Southtopia

If You Need to Elevate Yourself Above All Others Through the Food You Eat, You Can Buy Online at Umami-insider.store

Imagine the reactions from your lowly friends and family when they realize you do not just use basic ingredients, and your ingredients are unpasteurized, organic, raw, and gluten-free. If that is you, have at it with your cool self, but I also find that there are several specialty products that you won’t find with large food producers and that I will be adding to my shopping cart (my picks are listed below):

Brand/Product BuzzwordThings You Can Brag to Your Friends About
Echizen Nama Miso
UnpasteurizedEchizen miso contains less salt and nearly two times more koji, exhibiting a mild and sweet taste profile. Hand-crafted by Komego, a 185-year old miso producer and the only miso purveyor to the historic Zen temple of Daihonzan Eiheiji, Echizen Nama Miso is truly an artisanal miso.
Organic Mirin-Type
(Sweet Cooking Rice Seasoning)
16.66 fl oz
OrganicThe ingredients simply consist of organic rice, organic malted rice, salt, and organic sugar. (I had to look up more information as to whether or not this a “type” or a hon-mirin, so I tracked down the Morita’s website with their product information which says it is produced the same way).
Koikuchi Raw Soy Sauce
6.66 floz
RawWooden barrels made of Japanese cedar trees with Marukin’s artisan techniques. As a result, this unpasteurized dark koikuchi soy sauce exhibits a wonderfully fragrant aroma and rich flavor with a deep yet gentle umami. 
(Dried Kelp)
1.83 oz
(No need for any)Broth made with ma-kombu is clear, delicate and aromatic. As the highest rated and the most popular type of kombu, it is used by many of the Kaiseki chefs in Japan to make an amazingly flavorful dashi broth for soup, noodle dishes, and simmered dishes.
Yamamoto Kajino
Juwari Soba Noodles
(100% Buckwheat Noodles)
7.05 oz
Gluten-freeMost soba noodles are made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour, but Juwari Soba Noodles are made from 100% buckwheat flour. Made in Hokkaido, this premium brand of soba noodles contains only water and buckwheat flour, with no additives.
Umami-insider has curated all the buzzword driven products for Murica, but a number of them are standouts if you buzzword driven or not.
Photo Description: thin noodles with specs of the husk from the buckwheat are speckled throughout the noodles. The soba noodles are a very light brown in color. The noodles sit in a bamboo basket.
If you eat juwari soba (100% buckwheat), it will match your “I’m gluten free” t-shirt you love so much. Image by clvs7.

Embracing Japanese to the Global Food Culture

I hope by now you consider Japanese cuisine to be healthy which means you do not have to adopt an American diet of vegan, paleo, postbiotic, gluten-free, and no MSG to have a somewhat healthy diet.

Eating centuries-old cuisines from countries without a history of obesity and high death rates might be your best bet versus all the American businesses offering up every conceivable fad diet (“magic pill diet”).

Although, if you want a plan to put away the stretchy pants and live longer, try the food culture of not only Japan, but the world. If you do, you can incorporate a diet of Middle Eastern (hummus to falafel), Italian (branzino ai ferri to the use of olive oils), to Indian (chana masala to aloo gobi). Also, avoid the Americanized versions like the Chinese and Japanese variants which become sweeter, bathed in more sauces, and use fewer vegetables/varieties of ingredients.

The cuisines of the world date back centuries (unlike our McRib that only goes back to 1981… Murica), so you can chill with focusing on the pretentious AF buzzwords dictated by opportunistic American food producers who are now defining our roughly 250+ year old food culture.

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