Soy is an ancient staple in Asian cuisines, but lately it’s gotten a lot of bad press. Is soy good for you, or bad?
The short answer is that soy can provide many health benefits if it’s consumed in modest amounts and in a form that is either fermented or as close as possible to the whole state of the soybean. Soy sauce, tempeh, miso, natto, edamame and tofu are all excellent choices. Soybean plants are native to southeastern Asia, and soy has been an important part of some Eastern diets for more than 5,000 years.
Unfortunately, soy derivatives have become commonly used in a shockingly high number of packaged foods, so many of us are at risk of consuming much more soy than we realize – and in a form that is highly processed and less desirable. Soy lecithin, for example, is an emulsifying ingredient used in a large number of packaged foods, ranging from chocolate bars to salad dressing. These processed soy foods have little in common with the soy consumed in Asia for thousands of years.
Soy is one of the top eight most common food sources of allergies. Since 2006, food manufacturers have been required to state on the label whether or not a product contains soy. Individuals with soy sensitivities and allergies must be vigilant, because soy derivatives are in medications and vitamins. In addition, consumers looking to avoid genetically-modified foods would do well to read soy-containing product labels carefully. Most of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified. Unless the label notes that the soy is organic, odds are in favor of the soy being genetically modified.
Another soy concern stems from chemical substances called isoflavones, which occur naturally many beans and especially in soy beans. Isoflavones interact with human hormones, behaving like estrogen in the body. This aspect of soy has sparked worries and research related to unwanted effects of isoflavones, but early research suggests that soy may be helpful in alleviating menopause symptoms and preventing hormone-related cancers, like prostate cancer, endometrial cancer and breast cancer.
Other benefits of soy are clear and well-documented. Soy is high in protein, and this protein is of a very high quality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has publicly declared support for studies linking moderate soy consumption (25 grams of soy protein per day) with a lowered heart disease risk.
So consider enjoying whole soybean dishes, like tofu and steamed edamame, as well as fermented products like soy sauce, tempeh, miso, natto. Avoid highly processed foods whenever possible, and avoid soy supplements. As with all foods, enjoy everything in moderation, soy included. And talk to your doctor or nutritionist if you have any questions about whether soy is right for you.
Here’s one of my favorite soy preparations: a very simple, healthy protein meal. You can eat this with brown or white rice, with vegetables or on its own. I prefer firm tofu because it holds the shape and it won’t fall apart when you boil them in the water.
1 ounce firm tofu, sliced
3 green onions, chopped
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili paste (if you want it spicy)
1. Boil Firm tofu in the water for 10 minutes and drain.
2. In a small bowl, mix green onions, soy sauce, sesame seeds, sesame oil and chili paste.
3. Cut tofu in cubes (or any size you like) and put it on a plate.
4. Drizzle the soy sauce mix over tofu. Enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Kanko on Flickr.