Soybean is one of the main agricultural crops in the world, used in foods and industrial products alike. Culinarily, soybeans have been eaten in Eastern Asian countries for millennia in all sorts of forms. And in recent years, the rising popularity of plant-based diets means that soy-based foods - packed with protein and nutrients - have become a grocery store staple. But what are the health implications of eating soy, and why is it controversial?
When minimally processed, soy is a fantastic source of protein and calcium for those cutting back on animal products. It’s also a good source of fibre, folate, potassium, iron, Vitamin A + C, and omega-3 fatty acids. Soy contains isoflavones, which has been suggested to help reduce blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance and thus minimise the chance of diabetes. Soy is also believed to help reduce symptoms of menopause. There have also been researches showing how soy can reduce cholesterol and minimise risks of osteoporosis. Soybeans are also rich in the amino acid arginine, thought to help control blood pressure levels.
And yet the effects of soy aren’t without controversy. Research has linked soy consumption to ovarian disruption and breast cancer, although the studies and findings are convoluted. However, other studies indicate potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens which would make soy phytoestrogens beneficial for those at risk.
The data for whether the benefits of soy outweigh the risks remains inconclusive at best. Ultimately, it’ll come down to the individual’s choice and medical history.
Best and worst types of soy to eat
Regardless of where you fall on the soy dilemma, there is no doubt that the nutritional benefits of soybean will depend on how processed it is and whether or not it’s GMO. The less processed and non-GMO, the more nutrients and fibre it will have retained. But the more processed, the farther away it’ll be from that original nutrient-dense state.
Soy products that you want to include in your diet are the likes of edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk, and of course whole soybeans - these are referred to as “whole” soy foods.
Edamame is one of the most natural forms of eating soybeans; it’s basically young soybeans, harvested when still green and eaten steamed or boiled. They’re sometimes sold shelled, or whole and frozen and served as a snack or added to soups and noodle dishes. Edamame has all the cholesterol-fighting properties and protein that the pro-soybean camp touts, plus high levels of antioxidants, folate and vitamin K.
Tofu is a classic soy product, and eaten readily across Eastern Asia. It’s essentially soybean curd - made with just soybeans, water, and a coagulant such as nigari - that’s been drained and pressed together into blocks to remove the water. The level of pressing will determine the degree of firmness, which is why you get silky and soft tofu as well as hard and firm ones. Tofu is a great complete protein, and has loads of other nutrients and minerals too.
Tempeh is special because it’s fermented. It also comes as a compact block, although usually with a bit more bite and texture than silky tofu. Tempeh boasts even higher levels of protein, along with fibre and calcium, in addition to gut-healthy prebiotics and if unpasteurised, probiotics from the fermentation process.
Like tempeh, miso is also a fermented soybean product. Once the soybeans have been fermented with salt and koji, they’re turned into a thick paste. Miso is an incredibly nutritious addition to your diet, helping with digestion and boosting the immune system. However, it is also very salted so you may want to moderate the quantities you eat if you’re looking to control your salt intake.
Soy milk is yet another classic, easy to include in your routine and healthy to boot. It’s made from the liquid extracted from crushed soybeans, and is a perfect alternative milk to add to coffee, use in baking, or top over your cereal. For extra satisfaction, you can even make your own soy milk and skip the added thickeners and sweeteners.
You’ll want to avoid heavily processed soy. The names to look out for are TVP (textured vegetable protein), soy protein isolates, soy protein concentrates, and soy isoflavone supplements, and they often show up as “fillers” for snack foods and protein bars. Although isolated soy proteins may be high in protein, they’re chemically engineered to be stripped of all the other nutrients found in the soybean. Meat and dairy alternatives made with soy should also be regarded with caution. Those soy “meats” and soy “cheeses” are usually full of sodium and other additives that aren’t great for your overall health.
Recipes with soy: a few suggestions
Tofu is a nutritional powerhouse. If you’d like a double-dose of healthy soy, make this honey and soy glazed sesame tofu, rich in flavours and perfect as an appetiser. All you need to do is marinate tofu in soy sauce, honey, lime juice and sesame oil, then cook on the barbecue for a few minutes. If you’d like more tofu-forward dishes to make at home - from tacos to rigatoni with tofu meatballs - check out these recipes.
Soy sauce is a powerful condiment, packing a funky, umami punch and versatile for use in many recipes. Its concentrated salty flavour makes it perfect as a marinade for Japanese-inspired chicken wings, sticky and tangy.
Tempeh is wonderful as a stand-alone, grilled or pan-seared and put in a burger bun. But there are more inventive ways to include it in your meals, such as this pea soup topped with soy sauce-marinated and fried tempeh. Serve with a hefty chunk of bread to sop it up.
The humble edamame is a great snack by itself - topped with flaked sea salt - or as an addition to numerous dishes. It’s exceptionally well-suited to salad bowls, such as this chicken and orzo salad or quinoa and edamame salad.