The Complex Flavors of Soy Sauce

/ / Food & Flavor

One of the oldest condiments in the world, soy sauce has been a staple in Asian dishes for thousands of years. The complex, umami flavor profile created by fermenting soy beans has fascinated chefs and scientists alike. Now, a new study has found  over 50 flavor compounds in soy sauce.

“Decoding the flavours of this fermented food is particularly challenging because of the complex processes involved in its creation, including the microbial breakdown of compounds over time,” reads a press release by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The results of the study were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Scientists at ACS began with the question: “Soy sauce deepens the flavor of soup stocks, gives stir-fried rice its sweet-salty glaze and makes a plate of dumplings absolutely enjoyable. But what exactly makes this complex, salty, umami sauce so tasty?” 

They identified soy sauce’s flavor profile by using “tastants,” the chemical that produces a taste sensation replicating the flavor of food. This assessment identified 34 key tastants that replicated the taste of soy sauce. But the team of flavor assessors said something was not quite right “it wasn’t quite as salty or as bitter as the authentic product. The team then searched for other, unknown flavor compounds, hypothesizing that small proteins could potentially be the missing ingredient.” So scientists implemented sensoproteomics, a new method for identifying taste-active peptides in fermented foods. “…they identified a collection of proline-modified dipeptides and other larger, newly identified proteins that enhanced umami and other flavors.” The final recreated sample contained over 50 individual flavor compounds.

This analysis yielded another interesting result. Salt has long been thought to be  the primary element giving soy sauce its kick. But the researchers found that saltiness wasn’t due to salt – it comes from a combination of peptides and proteins. These peptides could potentially be a healthier seasoning alternative to table salt. 

Understanding the flavor profile of soy sauce could help in tailoring manufacturing processes to ensure consistent quality and boost certain flavors.