Soy foods provide many health benefits

[JUNE 30, 2000]  "Central Illinois is one of the highest producers of soybeans in the world, but the people who live here don’t eat any of them. And that’s a mistake," says Robin Rinker, director of nutrition at Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital. Researchers have found many health benefits from eating soy food, and they expect to find still more.

For example, the soybean is a leading source of edible oil, which is low in saturated fat (about 15 percent) and high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (85 percent). High levels of saturated fats are associated with coronary heart disease. In addition, soy oil is a good source of vitamin E, also thought to be beneficial to the heart.

Soy protein, which Rinker says would be a good replacement for some of the animal protein in the American diet, can help lower LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) without lowering HDL (the "good" cholesterol). This also promotes a healthier cardiovascular system.

Soy foods are high in isoflavones, a phytochemical found in plants. The isoflavones in soy have a chemical structure similar to estrogen. Populations that consume plenty of soy foods have lower incidences of breast, colon and prostate cancers, possibly because of the effects of these estrogen phytochemicals and other cancer-fighting agents found in soy. The role of isoflavones in preventing osteoporosis (bone loss) is also being studied.

Studies also show that Asian women, who consume an average of 25 to 45 mg of isoflavones per day (with Japanese women having the highest consumption, about 200 mg), report fewer symptoms of menopause than North American women, who consume only about 5 mg of isoflavones daily. Japanese women also have lower rates of osteoporosis and heart disease and a longer life expectancy.



However, Rinker warns, women taking estrogen or other medications should not stop taking these medications just because they are eating soy foods, without first consulting their physicians.

Rinker has incorporated soy foods into the diet of her own family, a husband and three teenagers, making sure they get at least one serving a day. Although it would take three or four servings to reach the Asian level of 35 to 45 mg, she thinks even one serving can promote better health.

Soy foods are not highly advertised items in most supermarkets, but more and more of them are becoming available.

Tofu, also known as soybean curd, is a soft, cheese-like food that can come in several types. A firm, solid type can be used in stir-fry or on the grill. Soft tofu, found in most groceries, is easily blended into sauces or other dishes. Tofu is very bland and will take on the flavor of whatever it added to it, either spicy or sweet. It is high in B-vitamins and iron and low in sodium. Tofu is usually found in the produce section.

Soy milk is also found in many groceries. A creamy product with a nutty flavor, it can be used over cereal or as a drink like regular milk. It can be mixed with milk, made into milkshakes and used to make pancakes, soups, and sauces that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free. It is sold both refrigerated (found in the dairy case) and non-refrigerated.

Since 1929 soy milk has been given to babies who could not tolerate cows’ milk, and it is still used in place of milk and eggs for people who have food allergies. Rinker sometimes uses it in the diet of hospital patients who need protein and calories but are sensitive to cows’ milk. However, Rinker warns, a few people can become allergic to soy. Symptoms would be a rash, burning and tingling around the mouth or tongue, and flushing of the face. If these symptoms appear, stop using the soy product.



Soy oil is the most frequently consumed oil in the United States, but often it is not labeled as soy. Rinker says that in the past, soy wasn’t thought of as a high-quality food, and if a product had "soy" prominently displayed on the label, people would avoid it. Today much of the oil labeled "vegetable oil" is largely soy oil, but consumers must read the labels to be sure. Soy oil is also used in many margarine-type spreads, but again it is necessary to read the label. Non-dairy coffee creamers, margarine, sandwich spreads and salad dressing may also be high in soy oil.


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Another product becoming readily available in grocery stores is vegetable patties, called veggieburgers or hamburger substitutes. Made with soy protein and vegetables, these "burgers" can be popped into the microwave and served on a bun. Much lower in fat than the meat products they replace, they are found in the freezer section and come in a variety of flavors. Soy "sausages" are also available frozen.

Both the Kroger and the Eagle stores in Lincoln offer these soy products, and Kroger offers a cheese substitute made with soy, found in the produce section with the tofu. Other soy products, however, are harder to find and will require a trip to a health food store.

A popular soy product in the Rinker household is TSP, textured soy protein, which Rinker calls "soy crumbles." It is low in moisture and has a long shelf life, so it can be kept in a sealed container on the shelf for several months. When it is reconstituted with water, it has a texture similar to ground beef. It can be used to replace part or all of the ground beef in almost any recipe.

"Truly, I was surprised my kids would eat TSP, but they prefer it to hamburger in spaghetti sauce and chili," Rinker says. "It has none of the saturated fat of hamburger but has a nice crunch to it."

Whole soybeans for use in recipes calling for dried beans, and roasted soynuts that can be eaten as snacks, are also available in health food stores, along with soy flour. Soy flour is higher in protein than wheat flour and is used in many products by the food industry. However, it has no gluten, so cannot replace all the flour used in yeast breads, and it must be refrigerated.

Soy crumbles, soy milk and soynuts are the easiest foods to incorporate into the American diet, Rinker says. "Americans don’t cook like Asians do. We have to find quick and easy ways to do things."

However, she warns, quick and easy does not mean taking soy supplements. "We won’t get the full benefits of soy simply by taking a pill. It has been proven that supplements are not as effective as whole foods, probably because there are other healthful substances in soy that have not yet been discovered."


She suggests using soy crumbles as a substitute for ground meat and making "smoothies" with soy milk. "Smoothies" are drinks made in a blender by mixing a milk-type product with fresh or frozen fruit. A good substitute for the traditional high-cholesterol Alfredo sauce can be made with a package of soft tofu, two tablespoons soy oil, grated parmesan and romano cheeses, and spices such as dried parley, onion powder, garlic, basil and pepper. Blend for about a minute, heat and serve over fettuccine noodles.


[You can find soy foods in the frozen, deli, and dairy food sections at local grocers.  The soy burgers and milk above were purchased at Eagle Country Foods Lincoln]


Harder-to-find soy products are available in two health food stores in the area. Food Fantasies at 1512 W. Wabash in Springfield has all kinds of soy products, according to manager Stu Kainste, including soy pudding, soy ice cream, soy chili, soy butter (like peanut butter) and soy cookbooks. Common Grounds at 516 N. Main St., Bloomington, also has a variety of soy products, including TSP, dried soynuts and soy protein powder.

More information about soy products and recipes can by found at the United Soybean Board Web site, To go directly to soy recipes, use


[Joan Crabb]


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