A closer look at liquid aminos

It has a serious sounding name and a cult following. Doesn't mean it's legit.

Among the newest items at your local crunchy granola store is a product called coconut aminos, which is a new twist on liquid aminos (an ingredient with some loyal followers, including Miranda Kerr who uses it to roast a chicken and toss a salad). It's tempting to assume it's healthy, especially if the word 'coconut' is tacked on. But what are liquid and coconut aminos, and should they find their way into your pantry? Here's the low-down:

What are aminos?

“Aminos” refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 total aminos, but our bodies only produce 11 naturally, which means we need to consume the other nine—called “essential amino acids”—from food sources. Our stomachs contain acid that break down food; when we eat protein, that acid breaks the protein down into its amino acid components, which can then reform in different combinations to create whatever kind of protein our body needs.

Why are aminos important?

We think of protein as the stuff that builds and repairs muscle, which is true, but it’s also responsible for hormone and enzyme production, immune function and satiety, says Lauren Antonucci, RD, a New York-based specialist in sports dietetics and member of the TCS NYC Marathon nutrition team. “Inadequate total protein intake will lead to undesirable consequences including muscle breakdown, poor recovery, increased injury rate and compromised immune function.” A teaspoon of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos contains a meager half gram of protein, but most plant-based protein sources do not contain all nine essential aminos, so a liquid amino can help make a complete protein. (Note that soy aminos have only eight of the nine essential amino acids, so it's not complete either.) Worse, "the coconut aminos contain zero grams of total protein per serving, so the contribution to your essential amino acids, if you were someone who was low in one or another, would be minimal and not likely to change your nutritional status," Antonucci says. Basically the name coconut aminos is a bit of a misnomer and it can be thought of as a condiment.

How are these aminos made?

Like soy sauce, liquid aminos is made from soybeans, while coconut aminos is made from a sap produced by blossoms of the coconut tree, plus unrefined sea salt. Both are gluten-free, unlike typical soy sauce.

What do these products taste like?

They're similar to soy sauce, though you don’t get nearly the same salty bite. Coconut aminos is sweeter, milder and less salty. New York-based sushi chef Simon Feil recommends them for people avoiding gluten or soy. “Either liquid aminos or coconut aminos can be used in just about any recipe that calls for soy sauce—stir fries, satay sauce, you name it.”

The verdict?

Liquid aminos and coconut aminos are a good proxy for soy sauce. But to call either a health food is probably an oversell.