Soy story

This humble little legume is sprouting up nearly everywhere -- and it's good for you.

February 03, 1999|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Food Editor

Soy -- it's what's for dinner. And breakfast. And lunch these days.

At least, that's what food consultants are predicting -- and nutritionists and dietitians are urging.

"The health-conscious will search for nutritious foods, like soy, to feel good about in 1999," says Dianne Keeler Bruce of New York-based DKB Consulting, which tracks food trends. "We are going to be seeing a lot more soy products."

Soy -- which has been popular in Asian cultures for centuries -- finally has come into the U.S. spotlight, showing up in foods that please even the most American of palates. It is being assimilated into a variety of favorite foods from pumpkin bread to vegetable soup to macaroni and cheese.

Still, trying to promote a plant food, like soy, in a traditionally meat-loving nation is not easy.

"Most people don't change their eating habits over-night," says Baltimore-based dietitian Colleen Pierre, who is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "I kind of suggest people should try one vegetable meal and one animal meal a day."

Even celebrities are praising the little legume.

Food-lover Rosie O'Donnell has revealed an affinity for soy burgers. And Oprah featured the protein-packed bean on a recent show.

But soy's nutritional wallop -- with its many essential vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, folic acid and iron -- is only part of the attraction.

It also is being linked to preventing cancer, lowering cholesterol, reducing heart disease, relieving menopausal symptoms and preventing osteoporosis. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering a ruling to allow soy-protein products to carry heart-healthy labels on food packaging.

With all these claims, the days when we wrinkled our noses at strange-sounding soy foods like tofu, tempeh, yuba and miso are dwindling.

"When I would mention the words 'soy' or 'tofu,' people would make a face," says nutritionist Sanaa Abourezk, author of "Oh Boy, I Can't Believe It's Soy" (Palmyra Publishing Co., 1998). "They would say it was tasteless and hold that against it. As a cook, it's an advantage."

Tofu has a wonderful propensity for absorbing the flavor of surrounding foods without affecting overall taste. Add extra-firm cubed tofu to a dish like Spicy Tofu, Cheese and Green Chili Enchiladas and you savor Mexican flavors, not some unfamiliar texture.

In her new cookbook, Abourezk, a Sioux Falls, S.D., resident who has a master's degree in nutrition, offers more than 100 gourmet soy recipes, including tiramisu, falafel, tarragon pasta, and potatoes with coriander.

"I started experimenting [with soy] and would give some to my neighbors," says the Syrian native. "When I told them it was soy, they would say, 'No way.' "

Incorporating soy into our diets is becoming easier, with more soy cookbooks and Web sites available. Log onto www.soyfoods.com and find recipes for applesauce cake made with soy flour; pasta with a cream sauce made from soy milk; pork and vegetables stir-fried in soy oil; and easy-day vegetable lasagna with tofu.

Soy's increased availability and better processing also have made it more palatable to American taste buds.

"Up until two or three years ago, soy was considered a fringe food here," says nutrition consultant and registered dietitian Anne Patterson of Nutrition Advantage in Farmington, Ill. "Now, it's been mainlined into supermarkets."

Improved soy foods also bring variety and taste to a meal, she says. "It works in the center of the plate [as an entree], as a snack, as a dessert. It works with every food group."

The Grocery Manufacturers of America forecasts a growing demand for soy products, whether they are varieties of tofu, protein alternatives for ground beef, soy shakes, roasted soybeans or frozen soy desserts. Americans are buying into the health and nutritional claims, spending almost $1 billion a year on soy products.

While researchers still are exploring how soy works on the human body, strong evidence suggests that the different types of phytochemicals and antioxidant properties found in soy are responsible for its healthful impact.

"We know our diets should be more plant-based," Pierre says. "Substituting soy is one way to shift our total eating to a more plant-based one."

How much we should eat for optimal results is not certain. Some health professionals say two or three servings a week. Others say one meal a day.

The United Soybean Board recommends consuming between 40 grams and 60 grams of soy per day to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended requirements of protein. For example, one-half cup of cooked soybeans has 14 grams per serving; 1 cup of soy milk has 7 grams; and one-half cup of tofu has 10 grams.

There also are powdered soy supplements, which can boost intake. A 1-ounce portion provides about 24 grams of protein per serving. Stir it into a smoothie or sprinkle some over cereal.

For lowering cholesterol, the soybean board advises adding as little as 25 grams of soy protein a day.

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