Tamari vs Soy Sauce vs Coconut Aminos


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Tamari is a great gluten-free soy sauce alternative. But what is tamari? And how does it differ from soy sauce and coconut aminos in terms of production and flavor. Is all tamari gluten-free? Let’s dive in and I’ll explain.

Tamari is a great gluten-free soy sauce alternative. But what is tamari? And how does it differ from soy sauce and coconut aminos. Let me explain.

When I went gluten-free several years ago, I still remember being shocked at how gluten managed to sneak into so many unsuspecting foods. Soups, teas, chewing gum….and sushi? Say what?

As an avid sushi-lover, it broke my heart to learn that gluten was indeed in my soy sauce. And in fact, there’s quite a bit of it. But after a little online sleuthing I soon discovered tamari and coconut aminos – my sushi saviors and “go-to’s” for Asian-inspired meals.

But as these food products were new to me (and they may be for you), let’s break down how they’re different, starting with the one you’re likely most familiar with.

What is Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce is a condiment frequently used in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It’s dark brown color is punctuated with a salty, savory, umami flavor and most folks know it from eating sushi, though it’s used in numerous Asian sauces and marinades as well.

The flavor of soy sauce comes from fermented soybeans, along with roasted grains (wheat), salt, water and a mold or yeast culture.

Interestingly enough, there isn’t just one type of soy sauce. In fact, there are hundreds of variations of this basic condiment. In the US, we most frequently find a light soy sauce (the most common type), a dark soy sauce (with added caramel color or molasses to thicken and sweeten it) and a low-sodium soy sauce (which uses less salt in the production process).

Tamari is a great gluten-free soy sauce alternative. But what is tamari? And how does it differ from soy sauce and coconut aminos. Let me explain.

What is Tamari?

So now that you know what soy sauce is, let’s chat about tamari. In the most basic sense, tamari is soy sauce made without the roasted grains (wheat). Unfortunately, nothing is ever quite that easy.

While most tamari products in the US from major brands such as San-J and Eden Organic are 100% gluten-free, you do need to watch labels as some tamari sauce brands could use just “less wheat” – which would still be enormously problematic if you’re celiac like I am. As always, read your ingredient labels.

Because tamari is made from more soybeans (and I like to think, less “filler”) I find that it has a bolder, stronger flavor than soy sauce. But it’s a flavor that I’ve come to love.

What are Coconut Aminos?

Coconut aminos are a soy-free alternative to soy sauce. Made from just two ingredients – coconut tree sap and salt – coconut aminos are popular in the paleo community and for those who are avoiding soy for health reasons.

Coconut aminos are still dark in color and have that salty, umami flavor, though contain far less sodium and have a more mild, slightly sweeter and perhaps more diluted flavor.

They’re definitely not as strong in flavor as tamari, but are a great soy sauce alternative.

Tamari is a great gluten-free soy sauce alternative. But what is tamari? And how does it differ from soy sauce and coconut aminos. Let me explain.

Which is Better – Soy Sauce, Tamari or Coconut Aminos?

Of course, the answer to this is highly individual and nuanced. As a celiac, I simply can’t eat soy sauce anymore, so that’s off the table for me. But if you don’t have a problem with gluten and you’d like to enjoy soy sauce, I’d recommend always purchasing organic soy sauce. Soybeans are one of the top GMO and pesticide-laden crops, so it’s worth spending the extra money on organic.

I enjoy both organic tamari and coconut aminos and switch things up based on what I’m eating. Because I avoid soy in almost all other capacities (and ensure it’s not an added ingredient in purchased food products), I’m fine splurging on organic tamari when enjoying sushi once or twice a month. I personally love the stronger flavor.

But coconut aminos are nothing to brush under the rug either and I use them frequently in sauces, marinades or other recipes that may already include savory ingredients and salt. Additionally, if you’re paleo or following an AIP or Whole30 diet or avoiding soy for a variety of reasons, coconut aminos will be your preferred choice.

A Few More Gluten-Free Tamari Tips

  • Always read ingredient labels to ensure your bottle of tamari is 100% gluten-free
  • Remember that it’s extremely difficult to distinguish between soy sauce, tamari and coconut aminos based on looks alone. Poured into a glass jar, they all look the same.
  • If eating out, remember to not only request to see the bottle of gluten-free tamari, but also verify that soy sauce or other sauces (such as ponzu, which is also made from soy sauce) were not used as a marinade for any ingredients in your meal.
  • If eating sushi, remember to always verify that the rice is gluten-free. Many sushi restaurants will use malt vinegar when cooking the rice, which is not gluten-free.
  • This is the brand of tamari and coconut aminos that I personally buy.

Enjoy these Tamari Recipes

If you’d like some recipe inspiration, I’ve got you covered. I adore Asian food and these are a few of my favorite recipes that use tamari. But remember, you can always substitute coconut aminos in any of these recipes.

Post originally published January 2018, but updated to include new information.

About the author

Lisa Bryan

Lisa is a bestselling cookbook author, recipe developer, and YouTuber (with over 2.5 million subscribers) living in sunny Southern California. She started Downshiftology in 2014, and is passionate about making healthy food with fresh, simple and seasonal ingredients.

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    1. Hi Kerry – I don’t have a problem with soy, but many of my followers do, which is why I haven’t posted any soy products on my website. But I may add some in the near future!

  1. I just had a thought while reading this as I’d never thought of soy sauce as being umami flavour. Although now you’ve pointed it out it’s obvious 😊 anyway, then I thought – could miso paste be used as a substitute with the addition of water??? 

    What do you think?

  2. I found your website typing a question for google; I already follow you in youtube!!! LOL how cool is that !!! To be honest I always forget the name of my channels I follow, but all I know I always find satisfactory answer in my search; always aligned with my life style.

    Love your channel, as is not extreme but more a healthy balance for cooking or living ! Thank you for your. ideas.

  3. Thank you so much for another great recipe!  I fixed these tonight and loved them. You are my go-to person for recipes, recommendations for specific ingredients and dishes/cooking accessories…..so helpful. I’m always turning on my friends to your site. And, thanks for clarifying the differences between tamari, coconut aminos and soy sauce. Really nice job!  Thanks!!!

  4. Thanks for the lovely recipes! I’m sure I will visit it often. I have been gluten free for years and one of the first things I did was research a gluten free soy sauce. Just thought I would let you know that you can have the lighter taste of soy sauce (vs/Tamari). LaChoy soy sauce is gluten free. It has always been gluten free. It is very good and I use it nearly every time I cook. I know it is totally gluten free because if I eat even a grain of gluten, I get swollen joints and inflammation and pain in my entire body!! So you can feel good about soy sauce once again as long as it is LaChoy!

    1. Hi Sherri – Thanks for sharing this with us! Will definitely keep that in mind when looking for soy sauces.

  5. This is so hard because I can’t eat rice and can have only wheat or baley,and allergic to oatmeal and millk.cant even find peanut butter cookies around without milk.in Fac I can’t find peanut butter cookie at all.one thing I’m not allergic to is. Peanuts.as child rice was rationed hence ate only barley and wheat from Islamic charity in malaysia.and I can’t eat rice maybe because of that.mrdications such as lamictal make it impossible to digest rice or potatoes.eveything is rice or milk in packages if you have allergies or like Chinese food.

  6. This is the BEST recipe I have found for jerky!!!! We usually spend tons of money processing deer for sausage and it’s just getting too expensive. I froze an entire deer into boneless roasts and take out a couple each time to make jerky. No waste as all is eaten within 2 days. It’s cheap and delicious!!!!

  7. Where have you been? Absolutely love this site with all the recipe ideas.

    I’ve been forced by my diabetes to minimize carbs. That means no potatoes, breads, or RICE. No rice for heavens sake. Which means no oriental dishes.

    Until now. With your recipes for cauliflower rice, I can start loving a whole new range of savory dishes.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Jack Simmons

    1. I’m so happy my recipes have helped to open a whole new range of healthy meal options for you Jack! Enjoy! :)

  8. Thanks for the information. As a hawaiian, soy sauce is big there in the islands. I love all the sauces, but use coconut aminos more because of the BP thing. And I don’t cook with salt as many are in the vegetables that are used in recipes. Aloha!!

    1. Yes, coconut aminos is a great soy sauce replacement! And jealous of all your recipes in the islands. ;)

  9. I love coconut aminos. Soy is my top food sensitivity problem so I don’t eat it at all anymore; it wouldn’t end well. So happy I found coconut aminos. 

    1. Yes, they’re a perfect substitute and still have that delicious savory, umami flavor. Glad you found what works for you Linda! :)

  10. I would just add that coconut aminos can actually be much higher in sodium than soy sauce and tamari, but this is deceiving because the serving size is typically about 1/3 smaller. So as always, important to read the label. Great info here, Lisa!

    1. Great point Amelia! Not only is reading labels always important, but making sure you’re comparing apples to apples (on serving size). :) x

  11. I love how you have broken down these three ingredients! Especially important for those who are newly gluten and/or soy free. I will have to pass this along to my mom.

    1. Yes, it sure can be confusing if you’re newly gluten-free or if you’ve adopted new dietary habits. Glad you found it helpful Tara – and I hope you mom enjoys it as well!

  12. I remember when I hosted a couple missionaries for dinner and one was gluten-free. I had no idea gluten was in so many things including soy sauce! Thanks for sharing alternatives to it!

    1. I’m right there with you. I had no idea how pervasive gluten was until I was forced to cut it from my diet. But the good thing is I actually prefer tamari more – and I would’ve never discovered it otherwise. So sometimes there’s a silver lining. ;)

  13. As always Lisa, very informative and a great read. I’ve been meaning to do this research myself, so thanks for saving me the trouble and delivering it to my inbox, lol.

    I’m looking forward to meeting you next week at ShiftCon!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Raj! And wonderful – I look forward to meeting you at ShiftCon as well!