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 is it so good for you, 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, and with good reason.
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 fiber, calcium, B-Vitamins, and omega-3 essential 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 - and that may seem like a daunting task. On the contrary, it can be simple and delicious, as long as you are armed with the right information. Here is a brief introduction to the major players in the soy foods category, all of which contain soy protein and may be beneficial to your health.
Sold in the frozen section of many larger supermarkets, edamame are soybeans in their most natural state-in the pod. To prepare, just steam or boil the pods for about five minutes, add salt, pop open the pods and eat. Edamame is served as an appetizer in sushi restaurants, and is a great alternative to snacking on popcorn (really!).
A beverage made from soybeans, soymilk is an alternative to cow's milk for those who are lactose intolerant, and 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), most of which are fortified with Calcium and vitamin D, making soymilk's nutrient profile comparable to cow's milk.