by Deborah Farber
It's in protein shakes, meatless patties, energy bars, and more. Touted as having the ability to prevent everything from heart disease to osteoporosis. It's soy-the wonder food of today. But you wonder, what exactly is soy? Where did it come from? And why should I eat it?
Soy can take several forms. Traditionally, it is found in foods such as tofu (cheese-like curd) soymilk, whole fat soy flour (made from soybean oil), fresh green soybeans, tempeh (cake-like, comprised of cooked, cracked soybeans) and miso (paste made from fermented and aged soybeans). However, in recent decades soy has been used to create second-generation soy foods such as meat and dairy replacements and added to a host of pre-packaged foods such as pasta, baby foods, soup mixes and other baked goods to boost nutritional content. But modern advances have produced another variety of soy foods all made from the aptly labeled 'soy protein', the by-product created when soybeans are smashed and their oil is extracted. These include defatted soy flour, textured soy flour, soybean concentrates, and soy protein isolates.
Soy is cultivated from the soybean. Despite its recent prevalence in the U.S. food and agriculture industries, it has been in existence for thousands of years. In fact, the soybean has its roots on the native vines of Asia some 5,000 years ago. The bean was first harvested in the northern part of China then migrated southward into surrounding Asian countries. By the turn of the following millenium, Europeans were also eating this staple.
The soybean made its first appearance in North America during the early twentieth century, when Asians began immigrating to the United States. It has been cultivated by U.S. farmers since the 1920s. It may surprise some people to learn that the man who brought us Corn Flakes Cereal, Dr. John Kellogg, was also responsible for making soymilk a part of the dairy aisle in our local markets as early as the 1920s. But the soy food industry did not begin in earnest until the 1980s. Now, soybean production in the United States exceeds that of any other country in the world. Not surprisingly, the creation of new meat and dairy substitutes made soy a popular alternative for vegetarians and growing number of health-conscious consumers.
Although some recent studies debate soy's benefits, most health experts agree that consuming soy can do a lot to boost a person's health. This wonder food can single-handedly lower cholesterol and the rise of heart disease, and be a valuable weapon in the fight against breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers. It also has the potential to promote weight loss because as a plant protein it can elevate metabolism and sustain insulin levels, while staving off hunger. Best of all, the phytoestrogens found in soy may help women going through menopause, as they regulate hormone levels, and decrease the common symptoms of this biological change including hot flashes and osteoporosis. And now with FDA approval of claims that soy can reduce heart disease risk, we are bound to see even more soy-based foods on the grocery shelves in the future. Soy is definitely something we can all chew on.