The skinny on soy

Mar 13, 2008 at 12:00 p.m. ET

Asians may consider soy in the form of tofu as a dietary staple, but Western vegetarians and vegans have taken soy far beyond the edamame and the bland tofu of yesterday. Not only is soy versatile and good for you (in moderation), it can be a key ingredient in recipes that are simply soy delicious.


Have you looked carefully at your supermarket shelves recently? The lowly soybean has found its way into numerous meatless products, everything from cheeses and yogurt to cream cheese and "hot dogs." You can even find soft or firm silken tofus that blend up beautifully for satisfying sauces, drinks, and yummy desserts (recipes below).


With soy being shaped into look-alike foods to appeal to nonvegetarians, it is a safe bet that more and more people will be convinced to eat less red meat and more of soy-based proteins. According to the folks at the Soyfoods Association of North America, located in Washington, DC, soy and its alternatives convey high-quality protein equal in nutritional value to eggs and bone-strengthening quality as those found in dairy products. Soy is also a good source of heart-healthy fatty acids.


Researchers have found yet another property of soy, one which should delight weight-conscious Americans. According to Soyfoods Association's communications director, Kelli Dieterich, "A new study that's out is a review of soy and weight management," she says. "The study finds positive results that show soy is as good as any other protein in helping people to promote weight loss."

The review cites the work of researchers who looked at the results of studies of humans and animals, finding that people lost the same amount of weight as those on a diet of beef or pork at the same caloric intake. "Besides," continues Dieterich, "soy improves both cognitive and immune functions."


But not all experts agree on soy's all-around benefits. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation spokesperson, Sally Fallon, "The reason soy is being promoted in this country is that 80 percent of soybean production goes into making soy oil." She adds, "The remainder is manipulated into soy protein isolates, so, basically, the real push for soy foods is to make a profit on soy waste products from soy oil manufacturing."

Fallon contends that Asians eat far less soy than Westerners do, and the soy products they eat are often fermented, as in the Japanese soybean paste known as miso. Further, she believes that the purported anticarcinogenic properties of soy cannot be confirmed.


As for the breast cancer and soy controversy, a 2006 review of 14 years of studies in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute concludes that some studies indicate soy intake may be associated with a small reduction in breast cancer risk but that some data suggests it may also have potentially risk-enhancing effects. The bottom line is that more research needs to be conducted and that, until more conclusive evidence is found, an excess consumption of soy is not recommended.


Soy consumption in moderation — as with most foods — is a healthy approach to a balanced diet. Here are three recipes to get you started.


Bean and "Meat" Burritos
Serves 4 to 6

Serve this with a large mixed-greens salad garnished with avocados and taco chips.

1 (12-ounce) package taco-seasoned ground soy "meat"
1/2 cup cooked pinto beans, rinsed
Salsa to taste
7 ounces shredded vegan cheese, preferably Cheddar flavor 
8  (8-inch) flour tortillas

Combine the soy "meat", beans, and enough salsa to make the mixture spoonable in a large bowl. Working with 2 tortillas at a time, warm them in a large skillet sprayed with nonstick cooking spray over medium-low to medium heat. When softened, remove from the skillet, and spoon several tablespoonfuls of the "meat"-bean filling onto one side of each tortilla. Sprinkle with cheese, and fold the tortilla in half over the filling. Spray the skillet again with nonstick spray, and cook the burritos over medium-low to medium heat until golden on each side and the cheese has melted. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up.

"Chicken" and Mushrooms on Polenta
Serves 4

Look for the refrigerated polenta tubes in your produce department.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
6 ounces sliced Portobello mushrooms
1 (6-ounce) package soy "chicken" strips
1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 cup pitted Niçoise olives
2 cups pasta sauce
1 (16-ounce) tube prepared polenta, cut into eight slices
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the garlic, mushrooms, "chicken" strips, red pepper, and olives for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the pepper softens slightly. Remove from the skillet, and set aside, keeping warm. Spray the cleaned skillet with nonstick spray, and pan-fry the polenta slices until golden on each side. Place them on serving plates, and top with portions of the "chicken" mixture. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese, as desired.

Chocolate-Chocolate Pudding
Serves 6

This low-cal and low-fat treat tastes decadent but without the heavy cream. Note that the tofu does not blend in totally, but that will not affect the overall flavor or texture of the pudding.

1 1/2 cups skim milk
1 (1-pound) carton silken soft tofu, drained
1 (2.1-ounce package) instant chocolate pudding mix, preferably sugar-free and fat-free
1/2 to 1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup crumbled chocolate wafers

Combine the milk and the tofu in a large mixing bowl, and beat on high with an electric mixer for about 2 minutes, or until fairly smooth. Fold in the pudding mix, and beat 1 to 2 minutes more. Fold in the chocolate chips. Scoop half the pudding into a large serving bowl, and sprinkle the cookie crumbs on top. Scoop in the remainder of the pudding, and refrigerate until ready to use.