It is difficult to imagine Asian food without soy, and now, products like soy sauce, tofu and tempeh are winning fans far and wide – and not only among vegetarians and vegans.
Soy beans contain up to 40% protein, although it is harder to digest than animal protein, says Dr Kathrin Hausleiter, a Munich-based doctor and nutritionist.
Nonetheless, she says, soy products can be a great alternative to meat.
“For people who can’t tolerate milk, soy is often a good choice,” she says.
Soy beans are full of fibre and low in cholesterol.
They have plenty of unsaturated fatty acids, and also contain magnesium, iron and vitamin B.
The beans are processed and packaged in many different ways.
Tofu is Chinese in origin and translates roughly as “curdled bean”.
It’s a firm curd made out of soy milk and tastes pretty neutral, so it can be used in recipes both savoury and sweet.
”You can fry it, bread it, smoke it and marinate it – all those are possible options,” says Lina Cuypers, who works for Taifun-Tofu, a food producer based in the southern German city of Freiburg.
Tofu tastes best with the addition of spices and other ingredients ranging from basil to turmeric, paprika and ginger.
Tempeh, a fermented soy product with a slightly nutty, mushroom-like taste, can be bought in a block form or sliced.
You can bake it, fry it or grill it, and it gains a particular taste if you marinate it in fresh herbs.
Miso is another increasingly popular soy product outside of Japan, where it is the main ingredient in miso soup, though there’s much more you can do with it.
There’s also soy cream and soy oil, as well as the popular bean sprouts in salads.
All these products may be tasty, but you don’t want to go overboard eating soy products though, say experts.
“There are some indications that excessive consumption of soy can affect thyroid function,” says Dr Hausleiter.
That’s because of isoflavones, a naturally-occurring compound in soy that resembles oestrogen.
”You should avoid isoflavone additives as food supplements, in the form of powder of pills,” says Susanne Umbach, who specialises in consumer health advice in Germany.
They are said to help women with menopausal symptoms, but so far, there is no scientific evidence of this.
If you are considering taking such nutritional products, check with a doctor first.
The European Food Safety Authority recommends taking products with soy isoflavones for no longer than 10 months at a time.
Scientists differ on whether isoflavones can protect women from breast cancer or actually increase the risk.
“There really isn’t much in the way of studies on this,” says Dr Hausleiter.
Doctors also advise caution when it comes to giving babies soy, as it isn’t clear yet how their bodies react to isoflavones.
Health experts advise checking with a doctor first if you’re going to feed your child soy baby food.
Likewise anyone suffering from gout should also go easy on soy products as some could contain too much purine.
And anyone with a birch pollen allergy could have a cross reaction to soy.
However, healthy adults need have no worries about eating moderate amounts of soy, says Umbach, as so far, the evidence suggests it has a beneficial health effect.
More than 80% of soy is made from genetically modified beans, she adds.
Shoppers can buy organically-certified products if they don’t wish to consume genetically-engineered beans.
When purchasing, you may also want to look at the origin and consider that huge areas of rainforest in South America are cleared for soya production. – Sabine Meuter/dpa
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