High in protein and used as a vegetarian and lactose alternative for many foods, soya has transcended its Asian origins to become the most widely cultivated legume across the globe. Nutritionist Jo Lewin shares the nutritional highlights, recent research findings and a host of recipes to help you understand and utilise the many forms of soya...
An introduction to soya
Like other beans, the soya bean (Glycine max) grows in pods enclosing edible seeds. They are usually green but can be yellow, brown or black. The texture is so adaptable that soya beans are frequently processed into a variety of foods. Soya beans – also known as edamame beans when eaten fresh from the pod - are consumed as an alternative to meat. They are the basis of soya milk, tofu, miso, tempeh and soya protein.
The soya bean plant is native to China, where it has been cultivated for well over 13,000 years. It was an essential crop for the ancient Chinese who regarded it a necessity for life. Soya beans were introduced into other regions of Asia centuries later and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it began to be used for more than animal feed in the West. The soya bean is now the most widely grown and utilised legume worldwide.
Since the 1970s there has been a marked increase in the consumption of traditional soya foods and the development of other soya foods which simulate traditional meat and dairy products such as soya milk, soya sausages, soya cheese and soya yogurts.
- Miso – a fermented soya bean paste that is used as a flavouring, popular in Asian cuisine. It is a good source of many minerals.
- Tempeh – is an Indonesian specialty typically made by cooking and dehulling soya beans and forming a textured, solid ‘cake’. It is a very good source of protein, B vitamins and minerals.
- Tofu – also known as bean curd is made from soya milk by coagulating the soya proteins with calcium or magnesium salts. The whey is discarded and the curds are processed. It is an excellent source of iron and calcium and a very good source of protein.
|173kcal||17g protein||1g sat fat||10g crabohydrate||6g fibre|
Soya contains phytoestrogens, chemicals found in plant foods. There are different types of phytoestrogens but the ones found in soya bean products are called isoflavones. Soyaisoflavones (daidzein and genistein) have attracted a great deal of research and some studies suggest that women with a soya-rich diet may have a lower risk of breast cancer. However, it is not clear whether genetic makeup (which influences the way in which the body metabolises food) and environmental factors interact with the soya and therefore produce different effects in people.
Phytoestrogens have been found to help block the effects of excess oestrogen in the body, evening out any imbalance in the ratio between oestrogen and progesterone. They appear to work by locking into the oestrogen-receptor sites on cells and in doing so they block out the stronger natural oestrogens. They can therefore be helpful in improving symptoms of oestrogen dominance such as PMS and endometriosis.
Due to the phytoestrogen content of soya, many women decide to include it in their diet as they enter the menopause. During the menopause, the body’s natural production of oestrogen stops and symptoms may ensue. As phytoestrogens act as a weak oestrogen, they may help relieve symptoms by boosting levels slightly.
Soya is regarded as equal to animal foods in protein quality yet it is thought that plant proteins are processed differently to animal proteins. For example, experimental studies have shown that soya protein isolates tend to lower cholesterol levels while protein from animal sources can raise cholesterol levels.
Soya beans also contain compounds called phytosterols. These plant compounds are structurally similar to cholesterol and steroid hormones. They function to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol by blocking absorption sites. The cholesterol lowering effects of phytosterols are well documented.
Genetics and environmental factors play a huge part in how our bodies react to certain foods, so as yet we can’t say whether a diet rich in phytoestrogenic foods is beneficial or not. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, soya-based foods can be an invaluable part of your diet.
How to select & store
Packets of dried soya beans are generally available in supermarkets and health food stores. Keep airtight and in a cool, dry place. Dried soya beans are best soaked before cooking in order to make them easier to digest. If purchasing canned beans, look for those that do not contain extra salt or additives. Once cooked, soya beans can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Edamame are fresh soya beans. They should be a deep green colour with firm, unbruised pods. Edamame can be found in health food shops and Asian supermarkets. They may be in the frozen section, although some shops now offer pre-cooked edamame. Many sushi restaurants serve edamame beans.
Soybeans are a common allergen. Raw or sprouted soya beans contain substances called goitrogens, which can interfere with thyroid gland activity. Soya also contains oxalate. Individualswith a history of oxalate containing kidney stones should avoid overconsumption. Women who have or have had oestrogen-sensitive breast tumours should restrict their soya intake to no more than four servings per week.
Although studies don’t give us any clear guidance on eating soya-rich foods, women with oestrogen receptor positive breast tumours should restrict their soya intake to no more than four servings per week and should avoid soya isoflavone supplements. Before changing your diet, it is advisable that you speak to your GP or alternative health professional.
Tofu is a vegetarian alternative to meat that is an excellent substitute in some of your favourite recipes:
Soba noodle & edamame salad with grilled tofu
Tofu, greens & cashew stir-fry
Spicy tofu kedgeree
Tofu & spinach cannelloni
Not just for vegetarians, soya beans go well with chicken too!
Chicken, edamame & ginger pilaf
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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