Most scientists have thought food had basically one job: it was metabolized to provide energy for the cell. That is what happens to most dietary chemicals, but not all of them. Some of them don’t get metabolized at all; instead, the moment they’re ingested, they peel off and become ligands, molecules that bind to proteins involved in ”turning on” certain genes to one degree or another. A diet that’s particularly out of balance, nutritional-genomics scientists say, will cause gene expressions that nudge us toward chronic illness.
Genestein is a chemical in soy, which attaches to estrogen receptors and starts regulating genes. Different individuals may have estrogen receptors that react to genestein differently. Genetic variations like that one, some scientists say, help explain why two people can eat exactly the same diet and respond very differently to it. For example, one maintaining his weight, and the other gaining.
Scientists are considering that these difference might be less due to nature or nurture and more to the interactive symphony of ”systems biology” that are nutrigenomics. The assumption that real genetic markers distinguish one ethnic group from another is at the philosophical heart of nutrigenomics.
In other words, if you’re of Northern European ancestry, you can probably digest milk, and if you’re Southeast Asian, you probably can’t. In most mammals, the gene for lactose tolerance switches off once an animal matures beyond the weaning years. Humans shared that fate until a mutation in the DNA of an isolated population of Northern Europeans around 10,000 years ago introduced an adaptive tolerance for nutrient-rich milk. The likelihood that you tolerate milk depends on the degree to which you have Northern European blood.
”That, essentially, is the model – a very dramatic one,” says Jim Kaput, the founder of NutraGenomics, a biotechnology company. ”As humans evolved, and as our bodies interacted with foods on each of the continents, we sort of self-selected for these naturally occurring variants. And certain populations have variants that, when presented with Western-type food, which is usually fatty and over-processed and high in calories, pushes them toward disease rather than health.”
This suggests the interplay of genes and nutrition. The Japanese who relocated to the United States after World War II soon saw their cholesterol levels soar. The Alaskan Inuit, whose metabolism was perfectly suited to moving around all day, looking for high-fat food, were suddenly saddled with an evolutionary disadvantage when they began living in heated homes and traveling on snowmobiles, and they now show high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The Masai of East Africa have developed new health problems since they abandoned their traditional cattle-meat-and-blood-and-milk diet for corn and beans.
Members of each population tend to respond similarly to diet and environmental conditions. But the genetics of race is an inexact science. And, since many people have ancestors from different continents, making them a genetic mixture, the data are rarely clean-cut.
In other words, ethnicity is relevant to nutritional genomics, but only as a starting point.
Kaput estimates that if tested, the middle 60 percent of the bell curve would probably not going to deviate too much from the basic fruit-and-vegetable-heavy diet recommended by the Department of Agriculture. The problem for everyone will be figuring out where they fall on the curve of each disease profile.
”Right now, no one in their right mind would offer genetic testing or tell you what drug to take,” says Dr. Muin Khoury, director of the Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control. Despite that warning, a handful of companies are already offering genomics profiles and nutritional supplements to early adopters looking for an edge. One company, the North Carolina-based Great Smokies Diagnostic Laboratory, offers a genetics-testing service called Genovations. Clients pay up to $1,500 for a preventive health profile.
For nutrigenomics to realize its potential, ethnically diverse databases of genomic profiles would have to be assembled, and then, researchers would have to divine patterns. We are a long way off from this.
(That opens up a whole new can of worms. Once our genotypes are in databanks, can we really be sure they won’t be sold to employers or insurance companies?)
“We have known for a long time that some individuals respond differently from others to the same foods, beverages, nutrients, and supplements they consume. That is, a one-size-fits-all approach to optimal nutrition is ineffective,” El-Sohemy, a professor who holds a Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics at the University of Toronto.
Nutritional genomics is the second wave of personalized medicine to come out of the Human Genome Project (after pharmacogenomics, or designer drugs). The premise is simple: diet is a big factor in chronic disease, responsible for a third of most types of cancer. Dietary chemicals change the expression of one’s genes and even the genome itself. The key is that the influence of diet on health depends on an individual’s genetic makeup.
A range of technologies form the practical basis of nutritional genomics.These are still largely untested in nutritional science, but their potential is underlined by their rapid adoption in disciplines such as pharmaceutical, toxicological, and clinical research. As with these disciplines, the main challenges for nutritional genomics lie in the design of meaningful studies for use of these techniques; the design of studies capable of deciphering the complex interactions between individuals’ genetic differences, predisposition to disease, and compound-gene interactions; and the integration of the vast data sets that these studies will produce.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said in a statement regarding these tests, “The use of nutrigenetic testing to provide dietary advice is not ready for routine dietetics practice.”
A study in the British Medical Journal found that people who did know their DNA-based health risks were no more likely to change their dietary behaviors. So, until we can safely rely on these test which will develop molecular biomarkers of early changes between health maintenance and disease progression, eat the foods that your grandmother put on the table, eat the recipes handed down for generations. This is the food that will probably feed your genes.
Miso is a fermented paste that adds a salty umami flavor. Most miso is made in Japan, where the ingredient has been used since the eighth century or earlier.
The paste, similar in texture to peanut butter, is typically a cultured mixture of soybeans, salt, and koji (a mold). Depending on the variety, miso can be smooth or chunky and is fermented anywhere from a few weeks to several years
Although miso is traditionally made from soybeans, certain varieties use other types of beans or peas. Other ingredients may also be used to make it, including rice, barley, rye, buckwheat and hemp seeds, all of which affect the color and flavor of the final product.
Miso contains a good amount of vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds. One ounce provides you with:
- Calories: 56
- Carbs: 7 grams
- Fat: 2 grams
- Protein: 3 grams
- Sodium: 43% of the RDI
- Manganese: 12% of the RDI
- Vitamin K: 10% of the RDI
- Copper: 6% of the RDI
- Zinc: 5% of the RDI
It also contains smaller amounts of B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium and phosphorus, and is a source of choline. Varieties made from soybeans are considered to be sources of complete protein because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for human health.
Miso is also very salty, so if you are watching your salt intake, use sparingly.
The fermentation process used to produce miso makes it easy for the body to absorb the nutrients it contains. The fermentation process also promotes the growth of probiotics, beneficial bacteria that provide a wide array of health benefits. A. oryzae is the main probiotic strain found in miso. A healthy gut flora is very important because it helps defend your body against toxins and harmful bacteria. It also improves digestion and reduces gas, constipation and antibiotic-related diarrhea or bloating
A. oryzae is the main probiotic strain found in miso. Research shows that the probiotics in miso might help reduce symptoms linked to digestive problems including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The fermentation process also helps improve digestion by reducing the amount of anti-nutrients in soybeans. Anti-nutrients are compounds naturally found in foods, including in the soybeans and grains used to produce miso. If you consume anti-nutrients, they can bind to nutrients in your gut, reducing your body’s ability to absorb them.
Observational studies have found a link between high-salt diets and stomach cancer. However, despite its high salt content, miso doesn’t appear to increase the risk of stomach cancer the way other high-salt foods do.
One study compared miso to salt-containing foods such as salted fish, processed meats and pickled foods. The fish, meat and pickled foods were linked to a 24-27% higher risk of stomach cancer, whereas miso wasn’t linked to any increased risk. Experts believe this may be due to beneficial compounds found in soy, which potentially counter the cancer-promoting effects of salt.
Animal studies also report that eating miso may reduce the risk of lung, colon, stomach and breast cancers. This seems especially true for varieties that are fermented for 180 days or longer. Miso fermentation can last anywhere from a few weeks to as long as three years. Generally speaking, longer fermentation times produce darker, stronger-tasting miso.
Regular miso consumption may reduce the risk of liver and breast cancer by 50-54%. The breast-cancer protection appears especially beneficial for postmenopausal women.
Miso is also rich in antioxidants, which may help guard your body’s cells against damage from free radicals, a type of cell damage linked to cancer.
Miso contains nutrients that may help your immune system function optimally. The probiotics in miso may help strengthen your gut flora, boosting immunity and reducing the growth of harmful bacteria. A probiotic-rich diet may help reduce your risk of being sick and help you recover faster from infections, such as the common cold.
Other health benefits from including miso in your diet:
- May promote heart health: Miso soup may reduce the risk of death from heart disease.
- May reduce cholesterol levels: Animal studies show that miso may help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood.
- May reduce blood pressure: Miso appears to reduce blood pressure in animals.
- May protect against type 2 diabetes: Some studies show that fermented soy products such as miso may help delay the progression of type 2 diabetes. (Not all studies agree on this.)
- May promote brain health: Probiotic-rich foods such as miso may benefit brain health by helping improve memory and reducing symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Miso consumption is generally safe for most people. Most varieties are made from soybeans, which could be considered a goitrogen. Goitrogens are compounds that may interfere with the normal functioning of the thyroid gland, especially in those who already have poor thyroid function.When goitrogen-containing foods are cooked and consumed in moderation, they are likely safe for all individuals, even those with thyroid problems.
How to Buy
When shopping for miso, you may find it called “miso paste” or “soybean paste.” Look for miso in plastic tubs or jars in Asian grocery stores or the refrigerator section of your local health food store. Some large grocery stores stock miso in plastic tubs near the refrigerated tofu.
Look for miso with a short ingredient list, free of stabilizers and preservatives.
There are more than 1,000 types of miso, ranging in texture, flavor, and color. These factors can be influenced by the ingredients, length of fermentation, and the conditions under which the miso is kept. Miso imported into the United States is typically divided into two main categories: light or white miso and dark or red miso. Some miso is labeled awase, which is a mixture of more than one kind of miso paste
White or light miso (sometimes called sweet miso) can be light beige to yellow in color and tends to be lighter and sweeter in flavor thanks to a shorter fermentation time. It’s made with less soybean content and more grains, like white rice. Red or dark miso ranges in color from light brown to almost black and is fermented for longer for a stronger, funkier, and saltier flavor. This miso is made with a higher proportion of soybeans and salt for an intense experience.
Different types of miso can often be used interchangeably in recipes but with varying results. Generally, the darker the color, the stronger the taste. Light-colored miso is better for light dressings and sweets, while dark miso is best for stews.
While the miso selection is somewhat limited in the U.S., a dizzying variety is available in Japan, with different regions specializing in different types of miso. Varieties like Hatcho (a dark miso) and genmai (made with brown rice) can sometimes be found stateside.
How to Store
Since it’s a fermented product, miso keeps very well. Store it tightly sealed in the original container in the refrigerator and it will keep for a year or longer. Light miso doesn’t have the shelf life of the darker varieties, since it had a shorter fermentation time, and should be used in under a year. Miso does oxidize, so placing a piece of wax wrap directly against the paste after each use will help prevent discoloring.
How to Cook
Miso is a paste and can be mixed into sauces, dressings, batters, and soups. It can be eaten cooked or raw. Since miso is a cultured food, it’s best to add it to long-cooked dishes at the end of cooking. Be careful not to boil dishes like miso soup because too much heat will kill the active bacteria in the miso.
You can also blend it with ingredients such as peanut butter, tofu, lemon or apple juice to make dipping sauces or spreads. When combined with oil and vinegar, it makes a simple and tasty salad dressing.
Miso is ready-to-use right out of the container, and while it is typically not eaten alone, it does not need further preparation.
The most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup, a traditional dish that’s eaten for breakfast and as a part of other meals. Miso also adds a unique burst of flavor to marinades, gravy, other soups like udon or ramen, or vegetable and tofu dishes.
The Best Vegan Mushroom Risotto
Rainbow Plant Life
- 4 tablespoons Plant Butter, softened at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons white miso paste
- 20 ounces mixed mushrooms, sliced or torn
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 6 garlic cloves, minced (divided in half)
- 6 to 8 cups vegetable broth – I included the range of 6 to 8 cups because I never use the same amount of broth and each pot of risotto is slightly different. You can warm up 8 cups to be safe, but you likely won’t use the entire amount.
- 2 large leeks (white & light green parts only), cleaned and diced
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- 2 cups Arborio rice or Carnaroli rice
- 2/3 cup dry white wine – Wine is a great addition, but if you don’t consume it or don’t want to buy it, just skip this step and start adding the vegetable broth to the pot after toasting the rice. To replicate the acidity of the white wine, you can squeeze in a bit of lemon juice when you add a ladle of broth (or at any point during cooking).
- 1/4 cup vegan parmesan cheese (optional)
- 1 handful Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped for garnish
Take the Plant Butter out of the fridge and place in a small bowl to soften. Once softened, add the miso paste and use a fork to cream them together until well combined.
Add the vegetable broth to a saucepan. Once it comes to a rapid simmer, adjust the heat to keep the broth warm/hot at a gentle simmer.
Cook the mushrooms. Heat a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Once shimmering, add the mushrooms. Allow to cook undisturbed for a few minutes to develop some browning. Cook for a total of 8-9 minutes, until mushrooms are nicely browned, stirring only occasionally.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add the chopped thyme and HALF of the minced garlic to the mushrooms. Season with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook for 2-4 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning.
Add the creamed miso butter to the pan and stir into the mushrooms. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and cook for 2 more minutes. Turn off the heat and set the mushrooms aside.
Cook the risotto. Heat a Dutch oven, large nonstick saucepan, or deep sauté pan over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot, add the leeks and remaining garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leeks have just softened.
Add the arborio rice and stir quickly until all of the rice grains are well-coated and the rice smells slightly toasty, 60 to 90 seconds. Pour in the white wine, and stir to scrape any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot, cooking until the wine is nearly all evaporated and the smell of alcohol has dissipated, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Ladle in 1 cup of the warm vegetable broth and stir frequently but not constantly. Once the rice has absorbed the liquid, add the next round of broth, 1 cup at a time. Continue this process stirring about every 30 seconds and adding more broth when most of the liquid is absorbed for about 20 minutes, until the risotto is slightly firm and creamy, but not too soft or mushy.
To test for doneness, you can place the rice on a flat surface and smear downwards with your finger. It should be fairly smooth but you should still be able to see a bit of the white, al dente center of the rice.
Transfer the cooked miso mushrooms to the risotto, and stir to warm through for a few minutes. Remove from the heat, and then stir in vegan Parmesan cheese, if using. Taste for seasonings, adding a bit of salt as needed and some black pepper to season. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve immediately.
*The type of pan you use matters, at least with regard to how much oil you need to use and how much you need to scrape up the browned bits and rice. If you use a nonstick pan, you can get away with using less olive oil. With a ceramic pot (and certainly with a stainless steel pot), you will need to use a generous amount of oil; otherwise, the rice will stick to the bottom of the pot. I don’t recommend using stainless steel for cooking mushrooms.
If you use the same pan to cook the mushrooms and the risotto, be sure to clean it out after frying the mushrooms and before cooking the risotto.