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Soy Story

What's so great about nature's wonder bean

The neutral flavor of soybeans allows for the creation of a wide range of diverse foods with tofu, tempeh and soy milk heading the long list.

Soybeans, like meat, contain all the eight essential amino acids that cannot be manufactured by the body. But, unlike meat, tofu is low in fat and has no cholesterol. This “king of the beans” is the richest in nutrients. Soybeans have been a major source of protein in Asian diets for at least two thousand years and are now an important source of protein and other nutrients in vegetarian diets.

Soybeans are also a good source of B vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fatty acids in the form of lecithin, which helps the body emulsify cholesterol.

Soybeans and soy products contain isoflavones, the general term for phytoestrogens, which have been found to protect against breast cancer. Many studies have shown that soy helps reduce risk of certain cancers, heart disease, kidney disease and osteoporosis.

Despite the promise of soy foods, it’s important to not assume that all of them are healthful. Some are highly processed, made from genetically modified soybeans or contain substances in soy that have been isolated and added to foods and powders in too great a concentration, such as soy isolates in supplement form.

For optimum health and to maximize nutrient intake, it’s best to stay away from highly processed soy foods such as textured vegetable protein (TVP) and Amira Elgan processed soy (imitation) meats (soy deli meats, soy sausages, tofu dogs, etc.) as well as soy products that have been made with conventionally grown soybeans. Most non-organic soy products available in the U.S., including soybean oil, have been made from soybeans with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, miso and edamames (fresh vegetable soybean harvested before reaching maturity) are by far the best. 

For example, tofu or soy bean curd is a wonderfully versatile food. It’s low in calories, fat and is free of cholesterol and it also contains iron, potassium and phosphorus. Tofu even contains more calcium per weight than dairy milk. It’s no wonder that tofu tops the list as a traditional ingredient in Asian and vegetarian diets.

To make tofu, soybeans are typically boiled, mashed and strained. The liquid or milk is then curdled with the aid of a coagulant such as nigari (a solidifier derived from sea water). The curds are drained and pressed together to make a solid block of bean curd.

There are many varieties of bean curd usually sold as soft, firm, extra firm, silken and baked.

Tofu is bland but easily absorbs flavors and seasonings during cooking or marinating. Tofu, combined with grains such as rice, makes an even better and higher quality complete protein.

Regular tofu is also sold pre-baked with different flavors and seasonings—ready to eat by itself or added to salads and sandwiches. (Here’s my favorite brand of baked tofu.)

Silken tofu, as its name implies, is very soft and smooth. It’s perfect for blending or food-processing for use in baking, sauces, soups, dips, smoothies and dressings where smooth creamy consistency is desired. For those same reasons, silken tofu, also called Japanese style tofu, does not make a good substitute for regular tofu and vice versa, as they are of very different textures and consistencies. 

Regular firm or extra firm tofu is great for stir fries, casseroles, kebabs and stews as it will mostly retain its integrity during cooking.

Regular soft tofu can be used for meals that don’t require the tofu to retain its shape, such as scramble eggs.

Although soy foods are an integral part of a healthy eating plan, it should be consumed in moderation and should not exceed 1 to 2 servings each day for healthy adults. The American Institute for Cancer Research states that, "even two or three servings a day of soy foods should be fine as one part of a mostly plant-based diet." 

Any substances as healthy as may be can become toxic if taken in too great quantities. An optimal diet should be well balanced, diverse and consist of a wide variety of wholesome organic foods including fresh vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes and nuts. 

Stay tuned for next week when I talk about buying, handling, storing and baking tofu.

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Reader Q&A 

Q: Dear Amira: I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject of soy. Recently I've heard that soy may not be the friend to vegetarians that it is supposed to be. Specifically I'm asking about the estrogenic effects it has on the body--from infant formula to TVP. 

Thanks, and I really enjoy your newsletter.

C. J., Wichita Falls, Texas 

A: Dear Carol: I have recently had a few readers ask the same question. There have been several articles circulating on the Internet about the dangers of soy. Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, have written the most notable anti-soy article titled, “Tragedy and Hype,” which has made some consumers fearful of soy consumption or at the very least raised some serious questions about the health benefits of soy.

I have done quite a bit of research and have read much about the arguments on both sides and can say without any reservations that I feel confident that the benefits of soy outweigh the causes for concern.

The major anti-soy studies are conducted by authors who advocate high consumption of meat and fat. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that vegetarian diets rich in soy are extremely healthy, and that high consumption of animal protein, fat and cholesterol leads to cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, the pro-meat crowd is anxious to produce "evidence" that vegetarian diets and soy are harmful. 

One of the specific claims is that isoflavones, the general term for phytoestrogens, which are plant chemicals in soy beans which behave like a weak version of the human hormone, estrogen, causes cancer based on studies conducted on rats and chicks. That sounds pretty bad. But the National Cancer Institute points out that these particular species are not genetically designed to deal with phytoestrogens. Other species, such as dogs, pigs, mice and monkeys, are not affected by these substances. Likewise, it is not likely that humans would have an adverse effect from consumption of soy. There have been far more studies that have shown direct correlation between consumption of isoflavones and lower risk of certain chronic ailments. Isoflavones have been found to act as antioxidants, carcinogen blockers and help suppress tumors.

While there are some substances in soy that need to be studied further to better understand their effects on humans, we should not lose sight of the fact that soy has been part of human diets for at least two thousand years. Nor should we forget that in certain parts of the world where people include several servings of some type of soy food along with other wholesome foods in their diets everyday have tendencies to live the longest lives. 

In terms of soy based infant formula, the first thing that I must say is that the best food for infants and babies is breast milk. The moment we deviate from nature we take certain risks. Infants are at a crucial point in term of nourishment from the moment they’re born and go through different needs until they fully develop into adulthood. Those first initial six months of life though, shape not only the infant’s physiological but also emotional development. While oftentimes nursing infants may not be possible, it is nonetheless what’s unquestionably best for them.

In the interest of known facts, there have never been any reliable study to date that shows that soy affects infants health in a negative way but there have been many other studies on adults who were fed formula as infants who are just as healthy as those fed cow’s milk. Breast fed infants are always far healthier than either cow’s milk or soy formula fed infants. They show lower incidents of disease and premature death rates.

Within the last decades, soy foods have been produced at an enormous rate because of the supply and demand effect. For years, we have had hundreds of reports telling us that soy is good for us. The result is that soy products have become mainstream and even a staple food in western diets.

We need to learn to understand the importance of food diversity. Variety and moderation are vital factors in the consumption of any food or ingredient. Too much of anything can be toxic. Just because something has been found to be beneficial and reducing risk of diseases doesn’t mean that the more we eat of it the healthier  we’ll get. Too much  or too little of any nutrient can be detrimental to the body.

Having said that, there have not been any substantial and reputable studies that have demonstrated that high consumption of soy has negative effects on human health.

I've barely scratched the surface on this important topic. The most comprehensive article I’ve seen thus far systematically examines all the claims made against soy by Fallon and Enig. The article is written by John Robbins, bestseller author of “Diet for a New America” and my favorite, “The Food Revolution”. 

John Robbins’ article, “What About Soy”, offers powerful arguments in deconstructing the claims made by Fallon and Enig (click here to read full article). 



Words of Wisdom

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Vegetarian Organic Recipe of the Week


Click on the picture for a closer look!

Linguini Vegenese (vegan) 
Serves 6 to 8

Inspired by the traditional Bolognese sauce from Northern Italy, I have created a healthy, nutritious and delicious version of this classic ragú. It takes a fraction of the time to make and, instead of using beef and pork, I use tempeh and baked tofu. It may be served with salad, warm whole grain bread and vegan Parmesan cheese or real Parmesan cheese if you must.

Preparation time: 15 minutes Cooking time: 30 minutes Equipment: Food processor or blender

Get ingredients ready (use organic ingredients if possible)
Water for boiling pasta (enough to cover pasta)
2 tablespoons unrefined sunflower or canola oil
6 fresh garlic cloves 
1 small onion peeled and cut in 4 pieces
2 cups tempeh, finely crumbled
2 large carrots washed, peeled with ends trimmed and cut into small pieces
12 fresh plum tomatoes peeled and seeded (or 28-oz whole peeled canned tomatoes)
1½ teaspoon dried thyme
1¼ teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 lb (16 oz package) linguini dried pasta
1½ cup finely cubed baked tofu, about ¼ inch (Italian or tomato basil flavor) 
1 cup regular plain soymilk (fresh or aseptic)
1 cup vegetable stock or broth
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon tomato paste
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Reduced fat Veggy Parmesan cheese alternative (optional)

1. In a large pot, boil water for pasta. Heat sunflower or canola oil in a separate large pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, process garlic and onions in the food processor or blender until finely chopped. Add garlic and onion mixture to oil and sauté over for 7 minutes. Add tempeh and sauté for 3 more minutes.

2. In the meantime, put carrots in the food processor and coarsely chop to tiny pieces. Add carrots to tempeh mixture and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes. Place tomatoes, thyme, parsley, oregano and red pepper flakes in food processor and coarsely chop tomatoes into tiny chunks (do not fully puree). Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling water as indicated on package instructions, stirring occasionally. Set timer.

3. Reduce heat to tempeh mixture. Add tomatoes, tofu and 2 tablespoons olive oil to carrots and tempeh mixture stirring well. Cover with lid and simmer for 5 minutes. Add soymilk, vegetable stock, tomato paste, salt and pepper stirring well and simmering for 10 minutes over low heat. Set aside when done.

4. When pasta is done, drain then toss well with a teaspoon of olive oil to prevent from sticking. Serve portions of cooked linguini onto warm bowls or plates and spoon plenty of sauce on top sprinkling with Parmesan cheese alternative. Serve immediately. Sauce may be cooked one day ahead.

Cook’s tip: To peel and seed tomatoes immerse them in boiling water for about a minute then transfer tomatoes onto a colander placing under cool running water for 30 seconds. Peel skin away, cut in half and remove seeds and core.

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This newsletter is not intended to provide and replace medical advice. The author and editor expressly disclaim all responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from any information, diet or exercise suggestions. It is imperative that the advice of a physician is sought before any diet or exercise programs are adopted.

Copyright© 2003 - 2009 Amira Elgan. All Rights Reserved.