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Soy is More Than Tofu

by Terri Hobbs

You see a white rectangular blob of tofu and ask yourself, "Do I really have to eat that?" The long answer is "Well, you should, and we’ve got a recipe at the end that should get you eating tofu." But the short answer is, "No, because soy is more than tofu." Then you might wonder, "OK, but why do I have to bother to eat soy anyway?"


Why Soy?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. More than 1 in 4 Americans has some form of cardiovascular disease. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Lifestyle factors – like what food you eat – contribute to the risk of developing both of these dreadful diseases. Let’s take a look at how soy can help reduce that risk.


Heart Disease Prevention

A heart-healthy diet is important for both prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the National Cholesterol Education Program both recommend that no more than 30% of calories should come from fat and no more than 10% from saturated fat. Dietary cholesterol consumption should not exceed 300 mg per day. Americans typically get most of their saturated fats from meat and dairy products. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods -- not in plant foods like soy. Soybeans provide adequate protein without the saturated fat and cholesterol of meats and high-fat dairy.

In addition, high blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, and there have been a number of studies that have shown that soy protein helps lower blood cholesterol levels. One study showed that replacing animal protein with soy protein lowered total and LDL cholesterol levels in people with high cholesterol. Another study found that adding 25 grams per day of soy fiber to the diet resulted in a significantly greater decrease in LDL cholesterol than what occurred by just eating a low fat diet. Other studies have shown that other components of soy, like isoflavones and a-linolenic acid, also show promise for reducing the risk of developing heart disease. The FDA recently released a statement that said that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.


Cancer Prevention Connection

Isoflavones are also known as phytoestrogens – naturally occurring compounds in plants that have weak estrogenic effects in humans. Soy contains two isoflavones of particular importance – genistein and daidzein. Epidemiological (population) studies show that groups of people who regularly consume soyfoods, like the Japanese, have lower incidences of breast, colon, and prostate cancers. One study of dietary intakes and breast cancer showed that in premenopausal women, consumption of high amounts of animal protein (meat and dairy) increased risk, while eating high amounts of soy was associated with a decreased risk. Another study of 8,000 men of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii showed that men who ate tofu daily were only one-third as likely to get prostate cancer as men who ate tofu only once a week or less. Tofu may not be so bad after all.

The reason isoflavones may prevent cancers that are sensitive to too much estrogen (like breast and prostate cancers) is that isoflavones act as antiestrogens in the body. Estrogen receptors are found on cells in almost every organ in the body (men have them too). Estrogen receptors are present in the cardiovascular system and bone, as well. Research has discovered that estrogen plays an important role in health of all these tissues. Estrogen binds to these receptors. Some pollutants and pesticides act as strong estrogens in the body. Isoflavones, on the other hand, are weak estrogens. They bind to these receptors preventing the foreign estrogens, or even the body’s own estrogen, from attaching and exerting a harmful effect. Theoretically, consuming soy would put isoflavones in the body that could then bind to the estrogen receptors, exerting a protective effect.

Genistein has also been shown to inhibit the growth of human prostate cancer cells and human breast cancer cells. It has been shown to inhibit colon cancer in rats. It can stop the proliferation of cancer cells. Genistein also inhibits the growth of blood vessels, which could help prevent a tumor from getting its own blood supply. Other soy compounds have antioxidant effects, helping to prevent the formation of tumor-promoting free radicals (oxygen atoms missing one or more electrons that cause cell damage). One soy compound, phytosterol, is not absorbed in the digestive tract and goes to the colon intact, where it appears to help inhibit the creation of cancer cells.


Still More Health Benefits

About 10 million Americans, 80% of them women, have osteoporosis. Premenopausal women are protected from osteoporosis due to the naturally occurring estrogen in their bodies. Because soy contains phytoestrogens (isoflavones), it is possible that it will help prevent osteoporosis. And, in studies with rats, genistein has been shown to prevent bone loss.

Americans normally associate calcium consumption with osteoporosis prevention, and they think of that calcium as coming from dairy products. Some soy foods, like whole soybeans, are also good sources of calcium. Furthermore, calcium consumption is not the whole story. Calcium can also be lost and excreted from the body in urine. Excessive consumption of sodium and/or protein increases calcium loss; this is particularly true with dairy foods. Soy, on the other hand, provides protein and calcium without as much calcium loss as dairy. In Japan, where isoflavone consumption averages 200 mg a day (compared to less than 5 mg a day in western countries), Japanese women have lower rates of osteoporosis (and heart disease).

Soy consumption may also help reduce some of the symptoms of menopause because phytoestrogens may produce enough estrogenic activity in the body. For example, Japanese women rarely report the symptoms of peri-menopause (like hot flashes) that are common in the west.


But Tofu?

You don’t have to eat tofu to get the benefits of soy. You can have any of the following.

Soymilk -- The liquid expressed from cooked, pureed soybeans. It can be used in the same way as cow's milk. Different brands have different flavors, so you should try a few if you don’t like the first brand. But remember that soymilk does not taste like cow’s milk. You’ll find soymilk in aseptic quart and 2-quart sized packaging that does not need refrigerating until after opening.

Tempeh – This product is made from fermented, compressed soybeans. It has a nutty flavor and chewy texture and absorbs other flavors well. Before use in recipes, it is normally steamed 10 minutes to make it more digestible and to keep it moist when baked. Tempeh can also be fried. It is sold in refrigerator sections in plastic-wrapped, rectangular slabs.

Miso -- A paste made from fermented soybeans (and sometimes with grains like brown rice). It is used in Japanese soups and to flavor sauces and dressings. It is very salty and a little is all that is needed. Miso comes in several varieties. Light miso, which is a light tan color, is rather mellow and sweet. The darker misos -- red, amber, and brown types -- have been aged longer and have stronger flavors.

Beans – Can be eaten fresh, dry-roasted, or cooked. The fresh immature beans can be served freshly steamed (called edamame in Japanese restaurants) and have a mild flavor. They are green and shaped rather like lima beans.

The beans can also be dry-roasted like peanuts and make a tasty protein-rich snack food. They are usually called soy nuts.

Canned beans come in beige or black varieties and can be added directly to soups. Dried beans need an overnight soaking and three hours of cooking time to make them edible.

Powder -- Soy protein powder is the protein from the bean that is left over after the oil has been extracted. Powders are sold as shake mixes (with the soy carbohydrates and flavors like chocolate added) or as soy isolates (with no carbohydrates and no flavors added). Both kinds of powders can be added to drinks. Soy isolates can be added to baked goods to boost protein levels.

If you don’t know what to do with these soy products, pick up a soy cookbook at your local library or bookstore and give some of the recipes a try.


Don’t Say No to Tofu

Tofu may look like inedible white bricks, but it can be used in all kinds of recipes. It also comes in two distinct styles.

Japanese-style silken tofu is sold in aseptic packages that don't require refrigeration until opening. After opening, the tofu is good for about 4 days in the refrigerator. Silken tofu comes in three varieties -- soft, firm, and extra-firm. It is best used in sauces, puddings, and shakes.

Chinese or "regular" style tofu is sold in containers packed with water in the refrigerator section of the store. This type of tofu comes in three varieties, soft, firm and extra-firm, but these varieties are not the same as the silken tofu varieties of the same name. The soft tofu can be used in dips, dressings, and sauces much like the soft silken tofu. But the firm and extra-firm Chinese tofu is much more solid than the silken varieties. The firm and extra-firm Chinese tofu can be baked, grilled, or fried. These firm types of tofu are often pressed to remove their water before using. They can also be frozen. Freezing makes regular tofu chewy which makes it a good substitute for meat in chili and Sloppy Joes.


Drink Your Tofu

When all else fails, you can create a drink with tofu in it where you won’t even know the tofu is there.

Banana-Peanut Butter Soy Shake -- 1 generous serving or 2 smaller servings

1 cup low-fat vanilla flavored soymilk
1 ripe banana
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1/4 of a 12.5 ounce box of firm Lite Japanese-style silken tofu
1/2 scoop soy protein powder (isolates, not shake powder)

Add all ingredients to a blender. Blend until smooth, scraping down sides as needed.

This recipe makes a thick shake. Add more soymilk to make a thinner drink. Feel free to try other flavor combinations. Leave out the peanut butter and add strawberries, for example. Or replace the peanut butter and banana with a half cup of frozen blueberries.


About the author:

Terri Hobbs is the webmaster for Crazy for Life, a site for those with a zest for living and a desire to improve all areas of their life -- spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical. Check out the spiritual reading list, astrology column, fitness tools, personals, games, and extensive directory of links -- plus much more.

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