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If you’re vegan, gluten-free, or paleo, you may already be familiar with liquid aminos, but even if you’ve never used them, you’ve probably spied them on a shelf at Whole Foods or in the health food section of your favorite store. (Picture those bright yellow Bragg labels, or blue ones with palm fronds in the background…) So, what are they? In short, a common gluten-free alternative to soy sauce—but the long answer is a bit more complex.

“Aminos” refers to amino acids, which, on a fundamental level, are what proteins are made of. There are 20 different types of amino acids, 9 of which are essential to the human body but cannot be produced by our systems. Amino acids help build and maintain muscle tissues, but also play a role in your immune system, metabolism, heart health, and brain function. In order to get the amino acids our bodies can’t manufacture, we must ingest them, most commonly in the form of animal protein (including meat, eggs, and dairy), but they can also be derived from other sources, like quinoa (part of the reason it’s considered a superfood), or combinations of nuts and seeds.

No. They’re an ingredient or condiment primarily used for their flavor, often as an alternative to soy sauce, but to add savory notes in all sorts of dishes—and they also happen to be fairly healthy. In order to get a significant nutritional benefit from them alone, you would need to eat massive quantities of liquid aminos, which would also mean ingesting massive quantities of salt, but it’s not a bad idea to incorporate them in place of table salt or soy sauce where you can, especially if you can’t eat gluten (see more on that below).

Liquid aminos are made from soybeans, which are one of the rare plant sources of so-called complete proteins (meaning they contain all the essential amino acids you have to get from your diet). The soybeans are generally treated with hydrochloric acid to break down the protein and release the amino acids (mimicking the same process that would happen in your stomach), and they are then treated with sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) to neutralize the remaining acid, which also makes the liquid aminos taste salty. In their final form, they’re a dark amber-brown liquid that looks and tastes quite similar to soy sauce, though not as strong or harsh, and a little sweeter. There are some other important differences too.

All three of these products are made from soybeans, but soy sauce also contains wheat, so—unlike liquid aminos—it isn’t gluten-free. Since soy sauce is fermented, it also contains some alcohol, whereas liquid aminos don’t. There are several different types of soy sauce, and each individual brand is different, but in general, they will have added salt, and often added preservatives and stabilizers. While liquid aminos are definitely lower in sodium than regular soy sauce, they’re not quite as low as you might think at a glance at their nutritional labels. If you look closely, you’ll see that the serving size for liquid aminos is usually much smaller than the serving size for soy sauce—1/2 teaspoon versus 1 tablespoon. If you compare 1 tablespoon of Kikkoman soy sauce with the same amount of Bragg Liquid Aminos, the soy sauce contains 920 milligrams of sodium while the liquid aminos clock in at 480 milligrams. A tablespoon of La Choy brand soy sauce has 550 milligrams of sodium, so still more than liquid aminos, but not quite as big of a difference. Other brands of soy sauce can have as much as 1,230 milligrams of sodium per serving, or over half of your daily recommended allowance, so it’s always worth scrutinizing labels.

If you’re not familiar with tamari, another fermented soybean product, it’s similar to soy sauce (and is sometimes called Japanese soy sauce), but it’s most often made without wheat, making it gluten-free. However, some brands do contain small amounts of gluten, so always double-check the label to be sure. Specific brands vary in sodium levels too, but in general, tamari’s on par with soy sauce in that department. It’s darker in color and rounder and richer in flavor than both soy sauce and liquid aminos, but can generally be used in the same ways. If genetically modified ingredients are a concern to you, be aware that both soy sauce and tamari often contain GMO soybeans, while liquid aminos commonly tout their lack of GMO ingredients front and center.

Coconut aminos, as you might expect, are made from coconut (coconut sap or coconut blossom nectar, to be specific) and sea salt. They’re gluten-free just like regular liquid aminos, but they’re also soy-free and much lower in sodium, making them an increasingly popular choice, especially among paleo eaters. They don’t actually taste like coconut; instead, they’re dark and salty with a more pronounced sweetness, and are available in garlic and teriyaki variations, as well as in the form of granulated seasoning packets. A tablespoon of Coconut Secret coconut aminos contains only 270 milligrams of sodium, so if you’re watching your salt intake, they’re a clear front runner. Some sources claim coconut aminos also promote a healthy gut via the power of probiotics. Since they are naturally fermented, they do contain trace amounts of alcohol, but not as much as many brands of soy sauce (which can have more than 2 percent alcohol by volume, though often less, depending on the manufacturer). Bragg makes coconut aminos too, but they also contain their much-hyped apple cider vinegar and are not fermented, so if you must avoid all alcohol, that might be your best bet.

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, can be isolated, extracted, and used as an added seasoning, but it also occurs naturally in several umami-rich foods, like tomatoes, cheese, seaweed, mushrooms—and soybeans. Since soy sauce, tamari, and liquid aminos are all made from soybeans, they all contain at least minuscule amounts of naturally-occurring MSG. The Bragg FAQ makes a point of addressing this, and says that “Many of our customers who are very sensitive to MSG have never had any adverse reactions to Bragg Liquid Aminos.” That’s probably because MSG allergies are more psychological than physical. However, if you remain staunchly opposed to any MSG at all, you’ll be glad to know that coconut aminos do not contain any.

While liquid aminos, coconut aminos, soy sauce, and tamari all taste noticeably different, they’re close enough that you can generally substitute any one for another in a given recipe, to taste. But you’re definitely not limited to stir fries and Asian food when using liquid aminos or coconut aminos. You can use them in place of Worcestershire sauce (like in a vegan Bloody Mary), or add a dash or two to increase the umami savor of hummus, soups, sauces, salad dressing, marinades for meat or tofu, and all kinds of other dishes. Check out some specific ideas below.

Vegan Coconut Bacon

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Eating Bird Food

If you’re an ardent bacon lover, you may scoff at any vegan version, but this is a clever way to approximate that crunchy, smoky, savory flavor. Unsweetened, large-flake coconut is coated with liquid aminos (use coconut aminos if you like), liquid smoke, maple syrup, and paprika, then baked in a low oven. Just be sure to stir often so it doesn’t burn, let it cool to crisp up, then sprinkle it on salads, baked potatoes, in sandwiches, on ice cream… Get the Vegan Coconut Bacon recipe.

Vegetarian Tacos

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Hilah Cooking

Liquid aminos are a great way to add savor to all sorts of things, including meat substitutes like tofu, tempeh, and seitan, with less sodium than soy sauce or tamari (and no wheat). There are plenty other seasonings here too, including garlic, smoked paprika, and cumin, for delicious vegetarian tacos even meat eaters will enjoy. Get the Vegetarian Tacos recipe.

Paleo Cauliflower Fried Rice

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Jay’s Baking Me Crazy

Cauliflower rice is pretty well-known by now, but it doesn’t have to be plain Jane. Try it in fried rice form, either by itself for a lighter meal, or as a base for grilled meat or other protein, especially if it’s been brushed with paleo teriyaki sauce (which, like the rice, also uses coconut aminos)! Get the Paleo Cauliflower Fried Rice recipe.

Best Ever Vegan Mushroom Soup

Cashew cheese is the secret to this vegan soup’s creamy texture, and liquid aminos help bump up the natural umami savor of the mushrooms, while fresh thyme tops it all off. Get the Best Ever Vegan Mushroom Soup recipe.

Maple and Apple Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

While liquid aminos and coconut aminos are great vegan ingredients, they’re useful for omnivores as well. Here, they intensify the savory flavors of slow cooker pulled pork, with onions, apple cider vinegar, mustard, paprika, and cloves, plus maple syrup and sliced apples for a little sweetness. Get the Maple and Apple Slow Cooker Pulled Pork recipe.

Savory Quinoa Risotto

Quinoa is an incredibly nutritious grain (that’s actually a seed!)—gluten-free, full of protein and fiber and all the essential amino acids you need—and has a great nutty taste and fluffy yet chewy texture to boot. Pair it with mushrooms, spinach or kale, rosemary, garlic, lemon, liquid aminos, and cheese for a delicious and hearty, yet healthier than usual, take on risotto. Get the Savory Quinoa Risotto recipe.

Coconut Amino Marinated Salmon

Try liquid aminos or coconut aminos as a salty, savory element in marinades for all kinds of meat, fish, vegetables, and plant-based proteins. Here, salmon is marinated in coconut aminos, ginger, lemon juice, and fresh thyme. Feel free to skip the additional salt. Then broil, bake, or grill along with asparagus or other vegetables for an easy dinner. Get the Coconut Amino Marinated Salmon recipe.

Paleo, Vegan, Gluten-Free Worcestershire Sauce

In a pinch, you can simply add a dash of liquid aminos in place of anchovy-derived Worcestershire sauce in many recipes, but it won’t fully replicate the complex sweet-sour flavors of the real thing, so you may want to make your own vegan, paleo, and gluten-free version of the classic condiment at home. Apple cider vinegar, blackstrap molasses, coconut sugar, ginger, cayenne, and other ingredients are added to coconut aminos for a fantastic flavor bomb of a condiment. It lasts in the fridge for 2 months, giving you plenty of time to use it all (in any dishes that could benefit from an umami boost). Get the Paleo, Vegan, Gluten-Free Worcestershire Sauce recipe.

Related Video: 26 Easy Weeknight Paleo Dinners