Fish sauce is a popular ingredient used in many Asian cuisines, especially those of Southeast Asia. It is made from fermented fish that has been salted and aged for months or even years. The resulting brown liquid has an intense umami flavor and is used to provide saltiness and depth of flavor to dishes.
But is this salty condiment actually good for you? Here’s a comprehensive look at the nutrition facts, health benefits, and potential downsides of fish sauce.
What is Fish Sauce?
Fish sauce is made by combining fish with salt and allowing it to ferment for months to over a year. The fish goes through an enzymatic breakdown, resulting in a liquid that is rich in protein, amino acids, and minerals extracted from the fish.
Some common types of fish used include anchovies, mackerel, and sardines. After combining the fish with salt, the mixture is placed into large containers and weighted down to fully soak and ferment. It’s then strained, pressed, and bottled.1
The final product is a clear, reddish-brown liquid with a very pungent smell and umami or savory taste. The aroma is often described as being funky or fishy. But when used in moderation in recipes, it provides a well-rounded depth of flavor.
Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines. It’s known by many names such as nam pla in Thailand, nuoc mam in Vietnam, patis in the Philippines, and teuk trei in Cambodia.
The fish sauce traditions in these regions date back thousands of years. Ancient fish sauce production facilities dating to the 4th century BCE have been found in Vietnam and Thailand.2
Nutrition Facts of Fish Sauce
A typical fish sauce contains the following nutrients in a one tablespoon (15ml) serving:3
– Calories: 19
– Protein: 2g
– Carbohydrates: 0g
– Fat: 0g
– Sodium: 1,009mg (43% DV)
The main nutritional components of fish sauce are sodium, protein, and amino acids. Here is a more in depth look at the nutrition profile:
The sodium content of fish sauce is quite high, with a one tablespoon serving providing 43% of the daily recommended upper limit. The high amount of sodium is expected given that fish sauce production relies heavily on salt.
However, it’s important to note that traditional Asian cuisines often use many ingredients in balance. So while fish sauce does provide considerable sodium on its own, it is typically combined with fresh herbs, vegetables, and other ingredients that offset the saltiness.
Protein and Amino Acids
Fish sauce contains a good amount of protein, with about 2 grams per tablespoon serving. The protein is derived from the fish used to produce the sauce.
In addition, fish sauce contains many essential amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. These include lysine, leucine, isoleucine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.4
Having a balance of essential amino acids is important for the growth and maintenance of body tissues. The variety provided by fish sauce may contribute to its umami flavor.
Fats and Carbohydrates
Fish sauce is very low in fat and carbohydrates. The production process filters out the fish oil and does not add any other sources of fat or carbs.
Vitamins and Minerals
In addition to sodium, fish sauce contains various vitamins and minerals extracted from the fish including:5
However, the amounts of these micronutrients are relatively low per serving compared to other food sources. Fish sauce’s main nutritional value lies in its sodium, protein, and amino acid content rather than vitamins and minerals.
Potential Health Benefits
Here are some of the potential health benefits associated with fish sauce:
1. Provides Essential Amino Acids
As previously mentioned, fish sauce contains a balanced set of essential amino acids needed for building and repairing body tissues: lysine, leucine, isoleucine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Consuming foods like fish sauce that provide complete protein with all essential amino acids is associated with benefits including improved muscle mass, tissue repair, bone health, and immunity.6
2. Contains Compounds That May Help Heart Health
Some research has found fish sauce contains compounds that may contribute to cardiovascular health including:
– Polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s that help reduce inflammation and lower heart disease risk.7
– Peptides that demonstrate antihypertensive effects to lower blood pressure.8
– Nitrites that help widen blood vessels.9
More research is still needed to confirm fish sauce’s potential heart health benefits. But the presence of these compounds is promising.
3. May Have Antioxidant Properties
Early research suggests fish sauce may have antioxidant properties.
One study found fish sauce contained antioxidant compounds like polyphenols, flavonoids, and tannins that could help counter oxidative stress in the body.10
Another study detected high levels of melanoidins, which are antioxidants formed when fish sauce is fermented.11
The antioxidant capacities of fish sauce may help combat inflammation and cellular damage. But more studies are needed on this potential effect.
4. Adds Flavor While Lowering Sodium Use
Using a splash of fish sauce instead of table salt may help reduce overall sodium consumption.
Although fish sauce is high in sodium, it is used in small amounts and provides much more flavor bang for your buck compared to plain salt. The umami richness means you may be able to use less total sodium to achieve the same level of flavor in a dish.
Some chefs report using a quarter to an eighth of the fish sauce they would use for soy sauce, resulting in considerable sodium reduction.12
Potential Downsides and Health Risks
While fish sauce does have some nutritional components, there are also a few potential downsides:
1. Very High in Sodium
The most obvious concern with fish sauce is the very high sodium content. One tablespoon provides 43% of the daily recommended limit.
Consuming high amounts of sodium is associated with effects like high blood pressure, fluid retention, and strain on the kidneys. People with hypertension or heart failure may need to be especially mindful of fish sauce’s saltiness.13
However, fish sauce is typically used in small quantities as a flavor enhancer rather than main dish ingredient. Using just a teaspoon or two at a time minimizes its sodium impact.
2. Contains Tyramine
Fish sauce contains varying amounts of tyramine, an amino acid that can trigger headaches in those sensitive to it. Tyramine is found in fermented foods like aged cheeses, soy sauce, and cured meats.
People taking MAO inhibitor antidepressants should be cautious consuming tyramine-rich foods like fish sauce as it may cause dangerous rises in blood pressure. Those without sensitivities or medication interactions can safely consume moderate amounts.14
3. Potential Contaminants
There is a small risk of contaminants like heavy metals, allergens, and food additives in some lower quality fish sauce products:
– Heavy metals like arsenic may be present from polluted waters where fish are harvested.15
– Allergens like gluten, soy, or nuts could result from certain manufacturing processes.16
– Additives like MSG or caramel coloring may be added by some brands.
Opting for high quality fish sauce produced by reputable brands can help minimize exposure to contaminants. Look for additive-free, gluten-free options whenever possible.
4. High in Salt Without Other Nutrients
While fish sauce does contain protein and amino acids, it is relatively low in other nutrients compared to whole food protein sources.
Per calorie, fish sauce is not a very nutrient-dense seasoning compared to vegetables, fruits, lean meats, legumes, whole grains, etc.
So while it can provide flavor, fish sauce does not necessarily add lots of beneficial vitamins and minerals to your diet. Heavily relying on it for a sodium source may displace other more nutrient-rich foods.
How Much Fish Sauce is Safe to Consume?
Fish sauce is generally safe to consume in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet. Here are some guidelines for how much fish sauce is reasonable:
– 2 teaspoons (10ml) per day: This amount provides about 1,000mg sodium, which is 43% DV. This level is safe for most healthy adults spread throughout recipes and cooking.
– 1 teaspoon (5ml) per day or less: Restricting to this amount or less provides just 500mg sodium per day. This level is a good daily limit for those restricting sodium, have hypertension, or take medications impacted by tyramine.
– Avoid drinking fish sauce straight: Taking fish sauce shots is not recommended and may provide excessive sodium in one dose. Instead, use small amounts during cooking and seasoning foods.
– Limit cooking with fish sauce if also using other high sodium ingredients: Fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and salt all contribute sodium. Be mindful of overall use if combining fish sauce with multiple salty seasonings.
As with most things, moderation and balance is key when incorporating fish sauce into your diet. Used judiciously in cooking, it can provide flavor and nutrition. But overdoing can tip the scales on sodium consumption.
Tips for Cooking with Fish Sauce
Here are some tips for using fish sauce successfully in recipes:
– Start with a high-quality product. Red Boat, MegaChef, and Tiparos are some reputable brands praised by chefs.
– Use in marinades, stir fries, noodle dishes, soups, and sauces. The umami flavor pairs especially well with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu, and vegetables.
– Add at the end of cooking. High heat can change the nuanced flavor. Mix in toward the end of sautéing or simmering.
– Combine with sugar and lime. This classic trio balances out the salty-sweet-sour flavors.
– Add aromatics like garlic, ginger, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, thyme, and pepper. Layering flavors prevents one-note saltiness.
– Start with a little and add more to taste. It’s easier to balance if added gradually. You can always add more.
– Use sparingly as fish sauce is salty; a little goes a long way. In marinades and dressings, start with 1-2 tablespoons for every 1-2 pounds of protein or vegetables.
– Substitute for recipes calling for soy sauce. Use 25% less fish sauce as it has a more intense flavor.
– Store in a cool, dark place like the pantry after opening. Refrigeration can cause flavor changes.
Healthiest Ways to Use Fish Sauce
Here are some of the healthiest recipes and preparation methods when cooking with fish sauce:
– Thai cucumber salad: Whisk together lime juice, a little sugar, garlic, fish sauce, chili flakes, and toss with sliced cucumbers.
– Vietnamese grilled chicken: Marinate boneless chicken thighs in fish sauce, lemongrass, shallots, and honey. Grill until charred and caramelized.
– Shrimp fried rice: Stir fry jasmine rice with shrimp, carrots, peas, and scrambled eggs. Season with a splash of fish sauce toward the end.
– Vegetable stir fry: Sauté bok choy, mushrooms, peppers, and snap peas in sesame oil and season with a teaspoon of fish sauce.
– Chicken noodle soup: Simmer chicken stock with rice noodles, chicken, shiitakes, and bok choy. Finish with a dash of fish sauce.
– Salmon with ginger sauce: Pan sear salmon fillets and drizzle with a sauce of minced ginger, scallions, garlic, fish sauce, honey, and chili oil.
– Tofu banh mi: Spread toasted baguette with lemongrass garlic aioli. Fill with pan fried tofu, pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and a splash of fish sauce.
The key is balancing the strong flavor of fish sauce by combining it with lighter fresh ingredients. This allows you to use just small amounts while still providing big flavor.
Healthier Fish Sauce Alternatives
For those limiting sodium or following a vegan diet, here are some healthier substitutions:
– Coconut aminos – Provides umami flavor from amino acids in coconut tree sap. Approximately 75% less sodium than soy sauce.
– Bragg Liquid Aminos – Made from non-GMO soybeans and containing 16 times less sodium than soy sauce.
– Mushroom broth or seasoning – Provides meaty, umami taste and lower in sodium than fish sauce.
– Seaweed flakes – Rehydrated kombu sheets offer oceanic flavor.
– Salted anchovy juice or paste – Lower in sodium than fish sauce since made from anchovies and salt only.
– Worcestershire sauce – Provides fermented umami flavor, but limit use as it still contains some sodium.
– Salt-free seasoning blends – Use spice blends featuring ingredients like nutritional yeast, dried mushrooms, onion, garlic, ginger instead of fish sauce.
Even without fish sauce, you can layer umami flavors using salty ingredients like olives, capers, and pickles in balance with fresh herbs, citrus, vinegars, and spices.
Is fish sauce keto-friendly?
Yes, fish sauce is keto-friendly and fits into ketogenic diet guidelines. It contains no carbohydrates or sugar. The protein and sodium also fits the macronutrient goals of keto. Use fish sauce to add flavor when cooking keto-friendly recipes.
Does fish sauce go bad?
Properly stored fish sauce has an indefinite shelf life and may last for years without going bad. Its high salt content prevents microbial growth. However, its flavor can degrade over time, resulting in a less nuanced taste. For best quality and taste, use fish sauce within 1-2 years of opening.
Is fish sauce gluten free?
Most fish sauce is naturally gluten free since it is made solely from fish and salt. However, check ingredient labels to confirm the brand you are using is gluten-free, especially if the bottle contains other flavorings. Some may use wheat or barley during processing.
Can fish sauce be substituted for oyster sauce?
Fish sauce and oyster sauce have distinctly different flavors. Oyster sauce has a richer, sweeter taste compared to the sharp umami of fish sauce. If substituting, use 50% less fish sauce to account for its stronger saltiness. For 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, use 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce.
Is fish sauce Filipino or Vietnamese?
Fish sauce originated in both Vietnam and the Philippines. In Vietnam it is called nuoc mam, while in the Philippines it is known as patis. Both cultures have long histories of fishing and fermenting anchovies into fish sauce. So while both cuisines use it, fish sauce itself does not belong to any one specific cuisine.
The Bottom Line
Fish sauce can be part of a healthy diet when used in moderation. The biggest concern is its high sodium content, providing nearly half of the daily recommended limit in just 1 tablespoon. Those with high blood pressure, heart failure, or kidney issues should use extra caution.
However, fish sauce does provide a tasty source of protein and essential amino acids. And it contains compounds that may benefit heart health like omega-3s, peptides, and nitrites. Some early research also indicates fish sauce has antioxidant potential.
When cooking, balance its salty umami flavor by combining fish sauce with fresh herbs, spices, citrus, vinegars, and aromatics. This allows you to use just a splash to provide a flavor boost without going overboard on sodium.
As with most fermented foods, quality is also important. Seek out high-end brands that avoid additives like MSG. Store fish sauce properly in a cool, dark place and use within 1-2 years for optimal flavor.
Moderation and balance is key to harnessing the potential benefits of fish sauce while minimizing any downsides. Used judiciously, it can be part of a varied, nutrient-rich Asian-inspired diet. Just don’t drink it straight out of the bottle!