Food Group Superfoods: Protein Foods (Part 9)

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When most people think of protein foods, meat, chicken, or fish come to mind. But one concern with animal-derived foods is that they can be high in saturated fat. And cost can be an issue as well, especially for people feeding a large family. This week we’ll look at soybeans, a type of legume that has grown in popularity over the years, and another option for adding protein, flavor, and variety to your diet. (Check out “Food Group Superfoods: Protein Foods (Part 8)” to learn about salmon and eggs.)

Soybeans and soy products
What they offer: Soybeans (and soy products) are an interesting and sometimes controversial food. Soybeans, a relative of peas, have been a staple of the Asian diet for thousands of years; tempeh, miso, and soy sauce were developed in China during the Chou dynasty, and tofu came along during the second century BC. Soybeans were introduced to the United States in the 1800s; soybeans became a big-time crop during World War II, and today, the U.S. is the leading producer of soybeans.

Soybeans are a nutrient-rich legume. They’re an excellent source of protein, minerals (iron, manganese, potassium, magnesium), certain vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Soy can sometimes be an excellent source of calcium, too, depending on the form in which it’s eaten. Soybeans also contain phytonutrients (plant-derived compounds that may have health benefits) called isoflavones which are thought to help protect against certain types of cancer and possibly heart disease, and which may also promote bone health.

Until recently, research indicated that eating soy could make a big dent in lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels without also lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Unfortunately, a more recent review of all the research led the American Heart Association to conclude that soy doesn’t have quite the impact on LDL levels as once thought. However, that’s not a reason to stop eating soy.

There is also some controversy over whether soy is helpful or harmful for women with breast cancer. The concern is that isoflavones in soy can act like estrogen, which may, in turn, be harmful for women with estrogen-sensitive tumors. It doesn’t mean women with breast cancer shouldn’t eat soy, but it does warrant a discussion with the health-care team, first.

Nutrition info: One half-cup of cooked soybeans contains roughly 150 calories, 9 grams of carbohydrate, 14 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat, and 5 grams fiber. Cooked soybeans have a low glycemic index of 18. One half-cup (4 ounces) of firm tofu contains approximately 180 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrate, 20 grams of protein, 11 grams of fat, and 3 grams of fiber; tofu has a glycemic index of less than 20.

What to look for/how to use: Despite the fact that the U.S. is a top grower of soybeans, Americans are slow to jump on the soybean bandwagon. Luckily, there are many ways that you can get your soy.

Tofu: Regarded suspiciously by many as a quivering white mass that has no flavor, tofu has slowly come into its own. Tofu, or soybean curd, is a soft product made by curdling soymilk with a coagulant (often calcium sulfate). The curds are then pressed into a block.

There are different types of tofu. Firm tofu is generally used as a meat substitute and is great for stir-fry dishes, in casseroles and soups, and even on the grill. Soft tofu is good for soups, and silken tofu is good in blended or pureed dishes and for making sauces and dressings. Soft or silken tofu can be used to make desserts, too. And did you know that there is chocolate tofu? If you’d like to try tofu but are at a loss for how to prepare it, check out these recipes.

Edamame: Edamame, which are green soybeans that are still in the pod, have really taken off. They’re often served in restaurants as an appetizer, typically boiled and salted. You bite the pod and squeeze out the soybeans with your teeth. (The pod is discarded.) You can also buy frozen edamame in your grocery store. It’s a great snack for kids.

Miso: Miso is a salty paste with a buttery texture that is made from fermented soybeans. It’s traditionally used to make miso soup, but can also be used to make salad dressing and marinades.

Soy nuts: Soy nuts are soybeans that have been soaked in water and then baked until crisp. They have a similar flavor and texture to peanuts, and often come salted or flavored with various seasonings.

There are other soy products to try, too, such as soy milk and, of course, “hamburgers” and “hot dogs” made from soy. You might not like all of these soy foods, but give some a try and expand your palate!

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