What Are Liquid Aminos and How Did They Become a Staple of Hippie Cooking?

This salty, savory sauce has a story.
Spraying Braggs' Liquid Aminos onto Lemongrass Tempeh Crumbles in a bowl.
Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, Food Styling by Erika Joyce

For most health-conscious shoppers, Bragg Live Food Products means one thing: Apple cider vinegar. Celebrities swear by it, influencers wash their hair with it, and a proliferating array of gummies, capsules, and functional beverages promise its myriad murky benefits while bypassing that pesky vinegar taste.

But ACV isn’t the only vaguely healthy fluid produced by the wellness crusaders at Bragg Live Food Products. There’s also Bragg Liquid Aminos, ACV’s salty, savory sibling. Liquid aminos sound like something you’d find on a lab shelf, but they’re actually part of a long lineage of sauces—including fish sauce and soy sauce—that capitalize on the breakdown of protein to make food more savory.

In our nutrition-obsessed world, liquid aminos are also touted as somehow better for you than traditional soy sauce. Fitness blogs claim amino acids can help you build muscle, avoid preservative or gluten “triggers” in soy sauce that cause inflammation, and even improve exercise performance and recovery. That certainly sounds appealing. But what are liquid aminos, and how did they earn a permanent spot on the grocery store condiment shelf among countless other salty condiments?

What are liquid aminos?

Although there are some important differences, you can think of Bragg Liquid Aminos, and any other brands of liquid aminos made from soybeans, as a kind of soy sauce. According to author William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s encyclopedic survey of soy sauces, History of Soy Sauce (160 CE to 2012), liquid aminos are made by soaking soybeans in hydrochloric acid until the protein in the beans breaks down into its constituent amino acids, a process called acid hydrolysis. That denaturing process takes just one to three days—much faster than the process used to make soy sauces, which starts by mixing soybeans and wheat together, inoculating them with aspergillus (a type of mold) to make koji, and then fermenting the koji in salty water, which can take up to six months from start to finish.

That shorter manufacturing process of soy-based liquid aminos results in a strongly savory, umami-rich sauce, without any of the gluten or alcohol that soy sauce has (traditionally fermented soy sauces contain between one and three percent alcohol, which is created as a byproduct of fermentation). Coconut aminos, another popular alternative to soy sauce, are made by fermenting coconut palm flower nectar and salt, plus (sometimes) other ingredients. Bragg Coconut Aminos contains ACV, for instance, while other brands might add ingredients like garlic, coconut sugar, or herbs.

I keep saying “traditionally fermented soy sauce” because some inexpensive soy sauces are also made using acid hydrolysis, just like BLAs (Maggi Seasoning is made from wheat using a similar method). There are concerns that the method creates a compound called 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD), also found in other oil-containing processed foods, including infant formula and French fries. It’s a suspected carcinogen that might affect the kidneys and male reproductive system. Studies conducted on rats and mice yielded results convincing enough to prompt the FDA to issue a series of publications on how to minimize the development of 3-MCPD in foods. Bragg Live Foods has apparently tested for 3-MCPD in its liquid aminos and found them to be below acceptable US limits, but my requests for an interview were declined.

Consumers sometimes think Bragg Liquid Aminos is less salty than soy sauce, a statement that is technically true but only by the tiniest of margins. A distracted shopper comparing nutrition facts between Kikkoman Soy Sauce and Bragg Liquid Aminos might perceive a stark difference—960mg of sodium per serving in Kikkoman and 310mg for Bragg Liquid Aminos—but that’s comparing one tablespoon of soy sauce to one teaspoon of aminos. Equalize the volume, and the difference virtually disappears. Coconut aminos, however, usually are significantly lower in sodium than soy sauce.

How liquid aminos splashed onto the scene

Paul Bragg, a former PE teacher, athlete, entrepreneur, author, and health promoter born in 1895, was the founder of Bragg Live Food Products. The podcast Maintenance Phase does an excellent deep dive into his strange, falsehood-filled world, including how Bragg portrayed himself as a “life extension specialist” by just claiming to be almost 15 years older than he actually was throughout the entire course of his career. It turns out it’s very easy to convince others that your 50-year-old body is an “ageless, tireless, pain-free citadel of glowing, super health” when you’re actually 36.

Bragg evangelized his vision of health with free lectures around the country, often at churches, where he described himself as “America’s Foremost Lecturer, Teacher, and Writer on Scientific Living Principles.” In addition to urging listeners to eat organic foods, exercise, and do plenty of deep breathing, the lectures were also a chance for Bragg to publicize his various publications, additional paid health classes, and products like “Prof. Bragg’s Live Sprinkle,” a combination of ground vegetables and salt purportedly better for health than plain table salt, or “Glantex,” a “medicine” that claimed to make people feel 20 years younger and which was so obviously a scam that it earned him a fraud order from the Postmaster General.

When Paul Bragg died in 1976 at the age of 81, he left the company to his daughter-in-law, Patricia Bragg, who continued his legacy of clean living and proselytizing about the benefits of fasting and apple cider vinegar until she passed away in August of 2023. Today, the brand is owned by a private group of investors including pop singer Katy Perry and movie star Orlando Bloom.

It’s hard to say when the first liquid amino product was introduced. A German patent filed in 1900 for making a condiment from acid hydrolysis of cereals notes that “it is already known to make condiments from soybeans,” which suggests earlier use of the technique. The first patent for Bragg Liquid Aminos was filed in 1952 and registered in 1953, naming Paul Bragg as its inventor. But there are tantalizing hints that it had been around since well before that. Shurtleff and Aoyagi spoke with Pat Calligan, an employee of Paul Bragg’s publishing company, about Bragg Liquid Aminos in 1990. Calligan believed that Bragg had been making the product since 1915. An advertisement in Patricia Bragg’s 2001 book Healthy Heart: Keep Your Cardiovascular System Healthy & Fit at Any Age, claims the liquid aminos have been “a family favorite for over 88 years,” although it’s wise to take any statement of fact from the Bragg literature with a serious grain of salt (a turn of phrase Paul Bragg, who referred to salt as “poison” used to create “dead, embalmed” foods, would have certainly disapproved of).

Whenever they were first commercialized, liquid aminos became a core part of hippie food culture, which embraced soy-based and Asian (or Asian-ish) foods with gusto. Consider Alive Polarity, a “communal fellowship of vegetarians” that purchased the dilapidated Murrieta Hot Springs between San Diego and Los Angeles in 1981. In addition to “selling their self-improvement programs, health products and philosophy,” Alive Polarity also served 1,000 vegetarian meals each day to bathers, with menus emphasizing “purifying, health-building and gourmet dishes.” That meant soy. “More than 50% of our meals contain soy products,” said Breese English, the kitchen manager, in an interview in History of the Health Foods Movement, also by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. In addition to tofu and tempeh, Alive Polarity went through an immense amount of Bragg Liquid Aminos—as much as 25 gallons per week. “I use it in almost everything, sauces, salad dressings, soups,” Alive Polarity cook Mary Ann Beauchamp told Shurtleff and Aoyagi.

Bragg wasn’t the only brand of liquid aminos available in the 1950s. Dr. Bronner, who called Paul Bragg a “personal friend,” made a product called Balanced-Mineral-Bouillon that may have actually been introduced before BLA. It was described as an “all vege-amino-broth survival-food-base-concentrate” that was “guaranteed to duplicate our God-made natural sodium-potassium-chloride balance.” Its suggested uses were as an energy drink, a meal replacement, or a way to “mineralize” carrot or other vegetable juices (plus, the label claimed it would keep “a lifetime if undiluted”—convenient!).

A placebo against health anxiety

Liquid aminos’ health halo rests on a nutritional reality: amino acids, the building blocks of protein, actually are critical for our body to function. 20 different amino acids make it possible for us to do everything from regulate sleep to heal scratches. Humans can make 11 of those 20 ourselves, but the other nine—the “essential” amino acids—must come from our diet. We get them by eating protein, which our digestive system breaks down into its constituent amino acids. In that sense, you can think of BLA like pre-digested soybeans, already broken down into their smaller components.

Most (but not all) complete sources of all nine essential amino acids are animal-based. During the middle of the 20th century, the vegetarian diets that became popular with counterculture and new-age movements were relatively unfamiliar to mainstream America. Seminal vegetarian activists like Frances Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, focused much of their early work on convincing Americans it was possible to get enough protein while eating plant-based.

In the face of anxieties about vegetarians’ perceived nutritional deficiencies, it’s easy to see how the science focused branding of products like Bragg or Dr. Bronner liquid aminos resonated. BLA really does contain protein, as well as 16 amino acids (up to 18 have been found in traditional soy sauce), but the dose is so small as to be essentially homeopathic in terms of nutrition. From a flavor perspective, however, they’re extremely potent. That’s partly because one of the amino acids in liquid aminos is glutamic acid, a naturally occurring form of MSG responsible for that satisfying savory taste of foods like tomatoes, cheese, eggs, and meats.

Cooking with aminos

Liquid aminos can play the role of soy sauce in nearly any dish, adding saltiness, umami, and a kind of animalic quality that’s particularly welcome in vegetarian dishes. To my palate, it’s also a bit roastier tasting than grocery store soy sauce, which means it can sort of replace the satisfying savor of missing Maillard reactions in food cooked on an underpowered stove or without oil.

Liquid aminos are sometimes used as a substitute for soy sauce in marinades for ingredients like tofu, or the tempeh used in this “B.L.T.”

Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Food Styling by Katherine Sacks

The BLA label instructs you to use “as a soy sauce replacement,” but an entirely unscientific survey of BLA lovers revealed a bit more nuance. “I think of it like an ingredient as necessary in the cabinet as soy sauce,” says Nina Murphy, the owner of Sunflower Sake in Portland, Oregon, who grew up in a household where BLA were an everyday food. She uses soy sauces for preparing specifically Asian dishes, but reaches for the aminos in other, crunchier applications. “Need umami in cashew mac? Aminos. Need umami and salt for tempeh bacon? Aminos. It’s its own thing, so I feel like I have to have it around too.”

One friend says she occasionally craves rice with BLA and nutritional yeast, a kind of one-two punch of co-op savoriness she describes as “umami AF.” For another who grew up in Eugene, Oregon, one of the nation’s last remaining epicenters of 20th century hippie cuisine, liquid aminos are an essential component of what she refers to as one of her core comfort food meals, a recreated version of the Café Yumm! Yumm! Bowl with beans, rice, vegetables, a nutritional yeast-based sauce, and BLA. Still, not all memories of BLA are bathed in a nostalgic glow. One friend mentioned the deep sadness of work lunches from the Whole Foods hot bar where every single dish tasted like BLA—a kind of generic salty-savoriness, simultaneously bland and overpowering.

When I told BLA fans about Paul Bragg’s huckster history, reactions were mixed, but the most universal sense of disappointment came when I mentioned that the brand had been acquired in 2019. “What makes Bragg different from the endless other healthy brands that fill the supermarket aisles these days? I love it for the nostalgic tagline on their bottles—‘Health Crusaders Since 1912.’ And because it isn’t a celebrity-established or venture-capital-backed ‘wellness brand,’” wrote Kyle Beechey in Bon Appétit, one year before Bragg Live Food Products was acquired by a celebrity-backed venture capital group.

If we’ve learned anything from the food activists of the ’70s, it’s that the foods we choose to eat have a moral dimension beyond their impact on our personal health. The urge to shift our diet to reflect our values is an admirable one. But in the strange zone between the high vibrations of wellness culture and the lower tones of American capitalism, it can also be hard to know whether your choices mean what you think they do. At least we can still console ourselves with a super-savory tempeh BLT.