Soy beans are incredibly versatile as a food ingredient. Whether they’re used in their bean form — sauteed, boiled, roasted — or processed into tofu — silken, soft, medium, and firm — or converted into one of the many alt-milks on the market, they are healthy and as delicious as you care to make them. Tofu’s about as blank a canvas as you can get when cooking. We’re wild about soy beans and hope you are, as well.
Descended from: Soybeans, or Glycine max, are believed to have originated in China more than 5,000 years ago. The wild soybean, Glycine soja, still grows in China and other parts of Asia today.
Domestication date: Unknown but more than 5,000 years ago.
Properties: One of the most common forms soy beans take is in the form of tofu. How the solid bean is able to be processed into a the malleable white block that has become ubiquitous in Asian, vegetarian, and vegan foods comes down to its chemical composition.
Soybeans are rich in protein, and when they are soaked, ground, and cooked, the proteins can be coagulated or solidified into curds. The curds can then be pressed and molded into different shapes, resulting in tofu.
Here are some of the key factors that enable soybeans to be turned into tofu –
- Protein content: Soybeans are one of the few plant sources of complete protein, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids required by the human body. The protein content of soybeans is around 30 to 40 percent of their dry weight, which makes them an attractive protein source for vegetarians and vegans.
- Solubility of soy protein: Soy protein is highly soluble in water, which makes it easy to extract and process. When soybeans are soaked and ground, the soluble proteins can be separated from the insoluble fiber and other components.
- Coagulation of soy protein: Soy protein can be coagulated or solidified when exposed to certain agents, such as acids or salts. When the soluble soy proteins are heated and mixed with a coagulant, they can form curds that can be separated from the liquid whey.
- Malleability of tofu: Once the soy protein has been coagulated and formed into curds, the curds can be pressed and molded into different shapes, resulting in tofu. Tofu can be firm or soft, depending on the pressing method and other processing factors.
Health benefits: Soybeans are a rich source of various chemical compounds, including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Here are some of the key chemical properties of soy –
- Proteins: Soybeans are known for their high protein content, which typically ranges from 30 to 40 percent of their dry weight. Soy protein is considered a complete protein because it contains all the essential amino acids required by the human body. Soy protein has a unique amino acid profile, which makes it an attractive protein source for vegans and vegetarians.
- Carbohydrates: Soybeans contain complex carbohydrates, including fiber, which can help regulate digestion and blood sugar levels. Soybeans also contain oligosaccharides, which can cause flatulence and digestive discomfort in some people.
- Fats: Soybeans contain healthy fats, including polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. The oil extracted from soybeans is rich in linoleic and oleic acids, which are important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
- Vitamins and minerals: Soybeans are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin K, folate, potassium, and magnesium.
- Phytochemicals: Soybeans contain various phytochemicals, such as isoflavones, saponins, and phytic acid. Isoflavones are known for their estrogen-like effects, and they have been studied for their potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Dishes of Note: Edamame is a preparation of immature soybeans that are still in their pods. The word “edamame” comes from the Japanese words “eda” (枝), meaning “branch,” and “mame” (豆), meaning “bean.” Edamame is a popular appetizer or snack food in Japanese cuisine, and it is also enjoyed in other parts of the world.
To prepare edamame, the soybean pods are boiled or steamed until they are tender, and then they are lightly salted. The pods are then served whole, and the beans are eaten by squeezing or biting them out of the pods. Edamame can be eaten hot or cold, and it is often served as a finger food or appetizer.
Edamame is a nutritious food that is low in calories and high in protein, fiber, and other important nutrients. It is particularly rich in folate, vitamin K, and iron. Edamame is also a good source of antioxidants, such as flavonoids and isoflavones, which have been studied for their potential health benefits.
In addition to its nutritional benefits, edamame is also a sustainable food, as it can be grown with minimal use of pesticides and fertilizers. The pods can also be composted, making them a zero-waste food.
History: The history of soybeans dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient China, where they were first domesticated for their use as a food crop. Over time, soybeans became an important crop in other parts of Asia, such as Japan, Korea, and Indonesia.
The first soybeans were brought to the United States in the late 1700s, where they were primarily used as animal feed. However, soybeans did not become a major crop in the United States until the 20th century.
During World War II, soybeans became an important food source for soldiers, and the United States government encouraged farmers to grow more soybeans to support the war effort. After the war, soybeans continued to gain popularity as a versatile and nutritious food crop.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the development of new soybean varieties and agricultural technologies led to a rapid expansion of soybean production in the United States and other parts of the world. Today, soybeans are one of the most widely cultivated crops in the world, with major producers including the United States, Brazil, and Argentina.
Soybeans are used for a variety of purposes, including as a source of protein for human and animal consumption, as a feedstock for the production of biodiesel and other industrial products, and as a soil-improving crop in crop rotation systems.
The modern soybean has been selectively bred over centuries to produce a plant with larger seeds and better yield. In the 19th century, European and American researchers began to study soybeans, and the first American soybean crop was grown in 1804 in Georgia.
The development of modern soybean varieties accelerated in the mid-20th century, with the advent of new breeding techniques and the use of hybridization. In the 1940s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established a soybean breeding program to develop high-yielding varieties that were resistant to disease and pests.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the use of mutagenesis and other techniques to induce genetic mutations in soybean plants led to the development of new varieties with improved characteristics. These included varieties with shorter growing seasons, improved resistance to pests and diseases, and higher yield potential.
In the 1970s, biotechnology became a new tool for soybean breeding. Researchers began to use genetic engineering to introduce desirable traits into soybean plants, such as herbicide resistance, improved oil composition, and enhanced disease resistance.
Today, soybeans are one of the most widely cultivated crops in the world, with major producers including the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. Modern soybean varieties continue to evolve, with ongoing research focused on developing varieties with improved nutritional content, tolerance to abiotic stresses such as drought and heat, and resistance to emerging pests and diseases.
WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.
IMAGE CREDITS: Harry Rose; Gilles Ayotte; Pixabay; Polina Tankilevitch; cottonbro studio; Valeria Boltneva; Airam Dato-on; Riki Risnandar; Joshua Salva.