Is Fish Sauce Vegan?


Is fish sauce vegan?

Fish sauce is a popular condiment in many parts of the world and is a staple ingredient in East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines, particularly in Cambodia, China, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam.1

Is it vegan? No, fish sauce is not considered vegan. It’s a liquid condiment made from krill or fish that have been coated in salt and allowed to ferment for up to two years.2,3

This article addresses generic fish sauce. I previously wrote an article on Worcestershire sauce, you can check out here. Worcestershire sauce is a sauce that often contains fish but can be perfectly vegan. Apparently, Worcestershire needn’t have any fish to be labeled as such, and several brands contain soy sauce as a base, along with various seasonings and extracts.

Why Fish Sauce Is Non-Vegan

Fish Sauce Contains… You Guessed it: Fish

This may seem obvious, but keep in mind that a lot of “chicken flavoring” you’ll encounter on food labels is 100% plant-based. However, that’s not the case with fish sauce.

Historically, fish sauce has been prepared from different species of fish, either by using the whole fish or by use of the fish’s viscera or “innards”.1

Most fish sauces today contain only fish and salt. The fish is usually sourced from mackerel, anchovy, shrimp, or other strongly-flavored fish with a high oil content.

While salt was traditionally the only ingredient (other than fish), some variants add herbs and spices. The fish is usually mixed with salt at about a 10% to 30% concentration. It’s then sealed in a container for up to two years, to allow fermentation.2

At this point, the fish sauce is often produced via re-extraction of the fish mass which is accomplished by boiling the sauce. Aside from spices and salt, certain ingredients like caramel, molasses, rice, and molasses are often used to improve visual appeal and add taste.2

Longer fermentation times somewhat reduce the fishy taste, giving the end product a richer, nuttier, and more savory flavor.4

Keep in mind that the above is a generic description of most fish sauces. The food product can range quite a bit in various regions—in terms of its production and ingredients.

Southeast Asian fish sauce is commonly made from anchovies, water, and salt, and is much more intensely flavored compared to other fish sauces. Anchovies and salt are arranged in barrels where they’re allowed to ferment at which point they are slowly pressed, which yields a fishy, salty, liquid.

This region of the world generally uses fish sauce for cooking, or as a base for other sauces and condiments. For example, there is a sweet and sour version of fish sauce which tends to be used for dipping.1

In the Philippine, a fish sauce known as patis is very popular. It’s one of the most commonly used ingredients in Filipino cuisine.5

Patis is a by-product in the production of bagoong alamang (fermented krill) and bagoong (fermented fish). This type of sauce uses fish that tend to be on the smaller side like anchovies, sardines, etc.

The process of producing patis is a bit longer compared to other fish sauces because it relies on the readiness of bagoong.6,7

Patis is often used in place of table salt for added flavor, where it is sprinkled from a dispensing bottle, or poured into a saucer and mixed with labuyo chilis and calamansi and then used a dipping sauce.8,9,6

That barely scratches the surface in terms of the various forms fish sauce can take. Just know that they all contain fish in one form or another.

Vegans Don’t Consume Fish

Given the numerous variations of plant-based diets, it’s not always obvious to folks—especially newcomers to the subject—that fish is off-limits for vegans.

For one, there’s a variant of the traditional vegetarian diet called the pescatarian diet. These folks eat largely plant-based foods but consume fish as the sole source of meat protein. Some consume dairy and egg as well.

Secondly, fish are thought to have rudimentary nervous systems, and some believe they’re not capable of suffering. Which is nonsense.

Osteichthyes, aka bony fish, are a primary group of fish commonly consumed by humans. They are equipped with a bony skeleton.  A lot of modern fish fall in this category, and they are distantly related to chondrichthyes or cartilaginous fish, like sharks, rays, and skates.

Like the majority of vertebrates, bony fish have a nervous system composed of a spinal cord and central brain, along with many branching nerves. These structures allow them to sense their environment.10

They are very old animals, and if not for the ability to sense pain, it’s hard to believe they could’ve evolved.

Make no mistake about it: fish have the ability to sense pain and thus experience physical suffering. For this reason, vegans abstain from eating fish. If anyone consumes fish and claims to be a vegan, they are wrong to make that claim. They would be classified as a pescatarian.

Thirdly, folks often assume that the vegan diet is primarily a health-diet. For this reason, it’s common for people to wonder whether vegans eat fish because fish are thought to be heart-healthy.

Again, this is an incorrect assumption. Some in the vegan community are primarily concerned with health. But, what separates vegans from other vegetarians, is abstaining from the consumption of animal products.11

Fish Sauce in Otherwise Vegan Foods

Like Worcestershire sauce, fish is often added to common household condiments.

BBQ Sauce Caution

Fish isn’t a super common ingredient in BBQ, but some commercial sauces do contain the stuff.

For example, Heinz Texas Style Bold & Spicy BBQ Sauce contains the usual barbecue ingredients (vinegar, tomato, sugar, molasses, spices, natural flavors, additives, etc.) along with anchovies.12

Wing Sauce Caution

Wing sauce is another condiment that sometimes has fish in the mix.

For example, Buffalo Wild Wings Medium Wing Sauce contains the usual Buffalo sauce ingredients (peppers, vinegar, water, oils, spices, and additives) along with anchovies.13

Vegan-Friendly Fish Sauce

So, having said that, I have found one vegan-friendly “fish” sauce. It is marketed as “vegan fish sauce” so I suppose the labeling guidelines aren’t very strict.

The demand for fish-free condiments seems to have originated due to the fact that fish is a common allergen. Also, certain religious groups refrain from consuming fish and meat in the same dish.14

Certain vegan-friendly ingredients, like glutamate and MSG, are widely recognized as having the ability to impart that savory umami flavor. In fact, glutamate is where actual fish sauce derives most of its umami flavor.15

Vfish – Vegan Fish Sauce

This one uses several types of seaweed to achieve a fishy flavor. Like Worcestershire sauce, it also uses soy sauce as a base.

Ingredients for this product include:16

  • Water
  • Soy Sauce (Water, Salt, Color E150a, Sugar, Soybeans 10%, Wheat)
  • Cider Vinegar Vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Tomato Paste (Tomato, Salt)
  • Shitake Mushrooms
  • Seaweed

Generic Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is commonly used by folks who want to avoid consuming fish. In the West, it’s widely regarded as a vegetarian alternative to genuine fish sauce though the flavors are quite different.2

Anyway, soy sauce is a great option, if you’re looking for a widely available alternative to fish sauce.

That’s it for the vegan status of fish sauce. Thanks for reading.

You may also want to check out the following related articles:

References

  1. Fish Sauce. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fish_sauce
  2. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Kindle ed.). ISBN 978-0684800011
  3. Abe, Kenji; Suzuki, Kenji; Hashimoto, Kanehisa (1979). “Utilization of Krill as a Fish Sauce Material”. Nippon Suisan Gakkaishi. 45 (8): 1013–1017. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/suisan1932/45/8/45_8_1013/_article/-char/ja/
  4. Diderot, Denis. “Fish Sauce”. The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=did;cc=did;rgn=main;view=text;idno=did2222.0002.783
  5. “Patis / Fish Sauce”. Market Manila. http://www.marketmanila.com/archives/patis-fish-sauce
  6. “Filipino Icon: Bagoong”. For Filipinos in Europe. http://ffemagazine.com/filipino-icon-bagoong/
  7. Van Veen, A.G. (1953). “Fish Preservation in Southeast Asia”. In Mrak, E.M.; Stewart, G.F. (eds.). Advances in Food Research. 4. Academic Press. p. 217. ISBN 9780080567495.
  8. Olympia, Minerva SD (1992). “Fermented Fish Products in the Philippines”. In National Research Council (U.S.). Panel on the Applications of Biotechnology to Traditional Fermented Foods (ed.). National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234688/
  9. “Patis”. TagalogLang. https://www.tagaloglang.com/patis/
  10. Osteichthyes Nervous System. https://study.com/academy/lesson/osteichthyes-nervous-system.html
  11. Vegan. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vegan
  12. Heinz Texas Style Bold & Spicy Bbq Sauce, 19.5 Oz Bottle: Heinz® https://www.heinz.com/product/00013000004671
  13. BUFFALO WILD WINGS Wing Sauce. http://parentsr.us/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Buffalo-Wild-Wings-Sauce-Seasoning-Allergen-Ingredient-Listing-2011.pdf
  14. “Ask the Expert: Meat and Fish” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ask-the-expert-meat-and-fish/
  15. “Seashore Foraging & Fishing Study: From Poot-Poot to Fish Sauce to Umami to MSG”. Archived from the original on 18 February 2009. https://web.archive.org/web/20090218145531/http://coconutstudio.com/Fish%20Sauce.htm
  16. Vfish – Vegan Fish Sauce. https://betterluckstore.com/products/vfish-vegan-fish-sauce?variant=26982455836772

Drew Davis

Hi! I'm Drew and this is the place where I nerd out about vegan and plant-based diets. I have a BS in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Alabama and have taken dozens of classes in areas like organic and biochemistry, food science, medical nutrition therapy, nutritional genomics, and vegetarian diets. I'm still learning every day, and on this blog, I'll be sharing everything I discover about vegan diets as I go.

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