There was a time in recent history when the closest Americans willingly came to soybeans was by driving through farm country. The only milk you could find at the grocery store came from cows, and the word “tofu” conjured images of bell-bottomed hippies. Times have changed however, and what was once a staple only in Asian markets has found its way to mainstream U.S. supermarket shelves. So what exactly is soy, why would you eat it, and how can you incorporate it into your diet?
Domesticated in China around the 11th century B.C., the soybean--actually a legume--is the mother to many different foods. Edamame, soymilk, tofu, and tempeh top the list in popularity, not to mention all the food products that contain soy protein as an ingredient, like soy burgers and protein powders. In the quest for a healthier lifestyle, Americans have been increasing their consumption of soy foods upon learning that it can be beneficial to their health.
In 1999, in response to decades of studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave food manufacturers the right to label foods high in soy protein as beneficial to heart health. There have also been studies suggesting that soy may play a role in the reduction of diseases such as osteoporosis, prostate cancer and colon cancer. If that’s not enough, whole soy foods are good sources of protein, fiber, B-vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. And contrary to the widespread belief that all plant-based proteins are incomplete, soybeans are a complete protein. This means that foods made from soy are a great alternative to meat and dairy foods.
But in order for soy to be beneficial to your health, you have to eat it regularly in an appropriate amount and as part of your overall balanced and healthy diet. For people who want to eat soy products, up to one to two servings per day is appropriate. Examples of a single serving include:
These large soybeans are harvested when the beans are still green and in their most natural state. Edamame is most often sold frozen, but some stores may carry fresh edamame in the produce section. These soybeans have a sweet taste and can be served as a snack, appetizer (common in Japanese and sushi restaurants) or a main vegetable dish. You can find them in the pods or shelled (no pod), and which option you choose should depend on how you plan to eat them. (Remember, once cooked, to only eat the inner beans and discard the pod.) To prepare, just steam or boil edamame for about 5-10 minutes. Add a little salt, pop open the pods, and eat the beans by pulling the pod through your teeth. Shelled edamame also makes a great addition to many recipes, such as stir-fry, succotash, or vegetable-based salads.
A beverage made from soybeans, soymilk is an alternative to cow’s milk for those who are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy. Soymilk is a great way to incorporate soy protein into your diet. You can pour it on your cereal, use it in baking, or just drink it. There are several varieties (low-fat, unsweetened, creamer) and flavors (chocolate, vanilla, plain). Make sure the variety you select is fortified. In an 8-ounce portion, the soymilk should be fortified with about 30% of your calcium needs and 25% of your vitamin D needs for the day, thus making soymilk’s nutrient profile comparable to cow’s milk.
Use soymilk as a replacement to milk in any dish. Try the sweetened varieties when baking, and unsweetened milks in creamy dishes such as soup or mashed potatoes. Soymilk can be found in the refrigerated section, or in shelf-stable cartons. But don’t let the date on the carton fool you. Once opened, soymilk must be refrigerated and used within 5-7 days.
Soy cheese is available in chunk form, individually wrapped singles, and shredded. It comes in a variety of different flavors as does others cheeses. Soy cheese contains little of the beneficial isoflavones, unless the new concentration processing is used which preserves these isoflavones in the cheese. Select soy cheese that has been fortified and meets about 15-30% of your calcium needs in a 1-ounce portion.
This cultured soy product is much like regular yogurt, containing all of the beneficial cultures that make yogurt so good for you. Look for varieties that are fortified to provide about 25% of your calcium needs and 15% of your vitamin D needs per 6-ounce portion.
Soy Ice Cream
For those of you with a sweet tooth, there’s also soy "ice cream," and although it’s delicious and perhaps lower in fat than regular ice cream, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a health food.
To describe tofu as soybean curd turns many people off, so try this analogy: Cheese is to cow’s milk what tofu is to soymilk. Although the flavor is not at all the same as cheese, a similar process is used to make it. You can get plain tofu, smoked tofu, firm tofu, silky tofu, low-fat tofu…are you getting flashbacks of Bubba’s shrimp monologue? And the cooking possibilities are as copious as the varieties. You can marinate, sauté, or stir-fry it, blend it into a smoothie, or just slice it up and eat it right out of the package. Just think of it as the other white meat, and use it accordingly.
Tofu can be found in both refrigerated and shelf-stable packages. Firm tofu is best for stir-fries, or for replacing meat in a recipe. Soft or silken tofu is good for making smoothies, pudding, mock egg salad, or any other creamy dish. Tofu will take on the flavor of whatever you cook it with, but you can buy flavored tofu that has already been marinated as well. After opening a package, keep leftovers tightly sealed and use within 4-5 days or according to package instructions.
Using that cheese analogy again, blue cheese is to cheddar what tempeh is to tofu. It’s an aged, fermented food that can be used in many of the same ways as regular tofu. Tempeh has a nuttier, chewier texture that many people prefer to tofu. Because it’s fermented, you should not eat it raw. Cook thoroughly, according to package directions, and use within a couple of days.
Tempeh has a tender chewy consistency that makes it an excellent addition to a variety of foods. It is delicious on the grill. First steam cubes of tempeh and marinate them in a lemon marinade or a zesty barbeque sauce. Then grill until browned. Add chunks of tempeh to spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes or chili mix, or to favorite soups and casseroles. Steam and grate tempeh and mix with chopped onions and celery and mayonnaise for a sandwich spread. Pan fry it with mushrooms, onions and bread crumbs for a delightful mushroom stuffing. Get more tempeh recipes here.
These include items like soy dogs, soy burgers, textured vegetable protein (TVP), soy sausage, soy bacon—the list goes on and on. Nowadays, you can find a soy replacement for just about any meat, including barbecue ribs, chicken nuggets, and even fish, mostly in the frozen foods section. These foods are perhaps the easiest to incorporate into your diet, albeit the most processed. We all know that Mother Nature usually knows best, meaning that the least processed foods are the healthiest, but these analogs may be a much healthier way to satisfy your craving for, say, a greasy burger.
Roasted soynuts are whole soybeans that have been soaked in water and then baked until browned. Soynuts can be found in a variety of flavors and they come in small packages, usually in the snack foods or nuts section of the grocery store. High in protein and isoflavones, soynuts are similar in texture and flavor to peanuts.
Soynut butter is made from roasted, whole soynuts, which are then crushed and blended with soy oil and other ingredients. Soynut butter has a slightly nutty taste, significantly less fat than peanut butter and provides many other nutritional benefits as well.
So go ahead and enjoy your soy by incorporating soy products into a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and other lean meats. The next time you’re at the supermarket, filling up your cart with those other healthful staples, take some time to explore the world of soy. There is a plethora of soy foods to try, and even the pickiest of eaters can find one to love!
This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.