Why Soy Is Still Sound
It's easier than ever to make this healthful bean a part of your diet

By Laurel Kallenbach

Since those first tentative bites of tofu cheesecake, Americans everywhere have come a long way toward appreciating and using soy. Considering that Asian cultures have been consuming soy for five millennia, Americans are latecomers to the party. But we're making up for lost time: Once-exotic ingredients such as tempeh and miso are star players at today's hot restaurants, while home cooks have bonded with soy-fortified convenience foods ranging from burgers to ice cream.

The reasons are clear: Besides its culinary versatility, soy is a good source of cholesterol-free protein and fiber, and it's low in saturated fat. There's also evidence that soy intake may help lower risk of heart disease, certain cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes and menopausal symptoms. Yet, despite soy's current popularity, some controversies linger. Soy is a common food allergen for many people, and the debate continues over its estrogenic effects and the relationship between high doses of soy isoflavones and pre-existing breast cancer (see "Two Sides of Soy," December 2001).

While soy may not be free of negatives, it still holds promise as a good source of vegetable protein. Still, eating organic, non-GM soy—especially as a whole food—is considered by many experts to be nutritionally sound. In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a dietary health claim for soy foods, recommending an average daily intake of 25 grams of soy protein to lower cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. The guideline reflects studies from Asian cultures, where breast cancer and cardiovascular disease rates are low and where eating soy is a way of life.

Taking It In
Our soy-eating Asian role models consume about 25 grams of soy protein a day over their entire lifetimes. But is it realistic for Americans to eat that much?

"It's pretty easy," says Barb Schiltz, RN, CN. "Start slowly by eating just one serving of soy a day to give your body time to adjust," she advises, since some people experience gas at first. Once you're comfortable, gradually add more.

Aim for eating a variety of soy products. While much has been made of the health-protective properties of isoflavones—phytochemicals that appear to lower cholesterol, exert a mild estrogenlike effect, and even inhibit cancer cell growth—they are notoriously tough to measure. Since harvesting and processing methods affect the ultimate isoflavone content and the amount of soy protein, numbers vary depending on the brand and the soy product.

So don't get bogged down in the math, Schiltz advises. Focus on getting one to three servings of soy a day, which will average out to 25 grams of soy protein. For example, pour 8 ounces of soy milk on your breakfast cereal (7 grams), toss half a cup of fresh green soybeans into a lunch salad (11 grams), and dice 4 ounces of firm or extra-firm tofu into spaghetti sauce for dinner (11 grams).

Schiltz, for one, became a soy convert thanks to soy milk cappuccinos. But she didn't realize the power of soy until she went on an elimination diet. "Within 36 hours of the time I stopped eating soy, I started having hot flashes I wasn't aware of before," she says. "I knew soy affected menopause symptoms, but I didn't realize how profound the difference could be."

Where Soy Moonlights
These days, soy can be found in many forms at the grocery store. "Soy foods are versatile, user-friendly ingredients that marry well with many foods," says Lorna Sass, author of The New Soy Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 1998). Try these tips for serving up soy:

Soy milk. With its faintly sweet flavor, soy milk—made from ground, cooked and pressed soybeans—is perfect for desserts and creamy soups. Soy milk curdles when boiled, so add it over low heat at the very end of cooking, advises Sass. Opt for soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamins if you're using it as a cholesterol- and lactose-free alternative to cows' milk. Schiltz recommends organic, non-GM, full-fat soy milk for its beneficial fats.

Miso. This pastelike condiment, made by fermenting soybeans with other grains for anywhere from three months to three years, makes an excellent addition to dressings, sauces, and soups. Blend in hot water or broth before adding it at the very end to your recipe, says Sass. Miso will store for up to a year in the refrigerator.

Tofu (bean curd). Tofu is made when calcium or magnesium chloride is added to soy milk, creating curds that are then drained and pressed. Generally, the firmer the tofu, the higher the isoflavone content. Versatile tofu can be drained, pressed, frozen and marinated to suit nearly any recipe.

Soybeans. Hundreds of soybean varieties exist, ranging from cream-colored to black. Fresh green pods (edamame) are a favorite Japanese finger food. Soybeans are also available frozen or dried. To prepare dried beans, soak overnight, drain, rinse, cover with water and simmer for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, skimming off foam periodically; or cook using a pressure cooker for half an hour. Canned soybeans make a quick addition to salads or chili.

Tempeh. This Indonesian food is made by injecting mold into hulled, cooked soybeans (or a blend of soybeans and grains), producing rectangular cakes that taste meaty and earthy. Marinate before cooking for optimal flavor. Tempeh's look and texture is enhanced by brushing it lightly with oil and sautéing it in a pan until brown and slightly crispy.

Soy sauce. While this fermented product is a negligible source of protein and isoflavones (and is high in sodium), it adds a distinctive flavor to many foods. Try traditional-style shoyu, which is mixed with brine and fermented for one to two years to create a complex, sherrylike flavor. Ideally, shoyu should be added at the end of cooking for enhancing grain dishes, stir-fries and Asian-inspired foods.

Thinking It Through
While soy may not be completely free of negatives, it nevertheless holds promise as a no-cholesterol source of vegetarian protein that may ward off menopausal symptoms and protect against certain cancers or heart disease. And, as with any vegetarian choice, you're doing yourself a favor by reducing the amount of animal products in your diet and eating lower on the food chain. So if you decide it's right for you, serve up some soy in one of its many guises.

Laurel Kallenbach writes about natural lifestyles and spirituality. Her favorite soy food is a tempeh burger cooked on the grill.