Soy and Soy Products – Healthy Plant-Based Proteins
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
Beans in general are not much of a dietary staple in the US. However, traditional soy foods like tofu, miso and tempeh, have formed the basis of the diet in East Asia for centuries, where they’re valued not only for their versatility, but also for the healthy nutrition they offer.
While all beans provide protein, soybeans top the list when it comes to protein quality. Proteins are made up of small building blocks called amino acids. And some amino acids are termed essential, which means that we have to get them from foods, because our bodies can’t make them. A protein that contains all the essential amino acids is termed ‘complete’ and soy is one of the few complete proteins in the plant world.
Soybeans are also low in saturated fat and, like all plant foods, are naturally cholesterol-free. Soybeans also offer up calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and B-vitamins along with healthy omega-3 fats.
Current US dietary guidelines suggest that we try to get more protein from plant sources. With so many soy products to choose from, it’s easier than ever to work these healthy proteins into the diet.
- Tofu is essentially a cheese that is made from soy milk. It ranges in texture from extra firm to extra soft. The firmer tofu is good for grilling or stir-frying, while the softer, creamier tofus are good in smoothies or sweetened and topped with fruit as a dessert. Tofu needs plenty of seasoning since its flavor is so bland.
- Tempeh is made from soybeans that are partially cooked, allowed to ferment and then formed into a firm block. Tempeh has a meatier flavor and firmer texture than tofu and can be sliced and added to salads and stir-fry dishes.
- Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans that is used as base for soup, as well as an ingredient in sauces, marinades and vegetable dishes.
- Soy milk and yogurt each have about 7 grams of protein per serving. You can use the milk as a beverage, or you can substitute it for regular milk in most recipes.
- Soy nuts are roasted whole soybeans – they make a nice snack on their own, and they’re also good in salads, in trail mix and on cereal. Soy nut butter is made from ground soy nuts and is used much as you would peanut butter.
- Edamame are fresh green soybeans. You can often find these in your grocer’s freezer either in the pod, or already shelled. After briefly cooking in salted water, they can be eaten as a snack, or added to soups and salads.
- Soy protein powders and meat substitutes are made from soybean flour that’s had most of the fat removed. The powders can be added to smoothies or stirred into oatmeal and the soy meat substitutes can be used in all sorts of recipes in place of meat or poultry.