Nutrition Column – Soy: It’s So Good for You

The health claims associated with soy seem almost too good to be true. How could one product – and a bean at that – be so good for you? Not only has soy made it into the ranks as "high-quality protein," it’s thought to play preventive and therapeutic roles in cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis and the alleviation of menopausal symptoms.

If only it tasted good. While most soy products do taste a little different the first time you try them, they’re actually one of the easiest, most adaptable foods to add to your repertoire. It just takes a little sense of adventure and experimentation to fit soy into a healthful diet.

Among soy products, tofu is one of the most adaptable. Tofu is made by filtering cooked, pureed soybeans and curdling the resulting "milk" with coagulating agents. Some varieties inherit the benefits of added calcium when they are curdled using a calcium-based coagulant. Read labels for calcium content to be sure.

Tofu comes in a variety of styles: reduced fat, firm, soft and silken. The firmer varieties have had more water removed and thus are more nutrient-dense. They work well as substitutes for meat in stir-frys and combination dishes. Soft and silken tofus are good in creamy sauces and as substitutes for sour cream or mayonnaise in dips and spreads. They also work well in place of milk or cream in baked goods and desserts.

If you’re experimenting with soy foods, you may want to begin including them gradually in your meals. For example, try using crumbled tofu in place of beef or pork in your favorite meat sauce recipe. Or, use chunks of firm tofu for part of the chicken or pork called for in an oriental stir-fry. One trick of the trade: wrap tofu in plastic wrap and freeze. When thawed, it will have a pleasing, chewy texture, just right for dishes like stew and chili.

Because tofu is pasteurized at least once in the manufacturing process, it can be eaten as is without further cooking. However, like pasteurized dairy products, care is required to keep tofu from spoiling. Tofu keeps for about a week in the refrigerator and longer in the freezer. Once opened, cover it with water and store in an airtight container. For best results, the water should be changed at least every other day.

Soy milk is the liquid isolated from the cooked, mashed soybeans before the product is curdled to form tofu. It can be found in the dairy case of most supermarkets and has a shelf life similar to cow’s milk. Soy milk, which can be substituted for cow’s milk in most recipes, also works well over cereal and is great in "smoothies." Blend soy or cow’s milk, fruit, ice and dry soy protein shake powder.

When purchasing soy milk, be sure to read the label carefully. Unlike cow’s milk, soy milk varies greatly in nutrient composition depending on the method of the manufacturer. Many brands are sweetened with corn syrup; brands also vary in calcium and vitamin A and D content.

Fermented products comprise another category of soy foods. Miso, tempeh ("tem-pay") and some brands of soy sauce, or tamari, fall into this category. Tempeh, with its firm, meat-like texture, is gaining appeal. Because both tofu and tempeh are rather flavorless, they take on the flavor of the seasonings in which they are prepared.

Finally, producers have responded to the never-ending demand for convenience by bringing us tofu and/or soy-protein based burgers, hot dogs, sausages, etc. While soy burgers will never replace the real thing, these products have made advances in taste and quality in recent years. One caution: though cholesterol free, soy burgers and soy dogs can be quite high in fat and sodium content.