Soy foods such as edamame, tofu, and tempeh were once the exclusive darlings of health food stores. Now generally known for their excellent nutrition, soy foods have gone mainstream, and are available in supermarkets throughout the United States.
But just as the texture and taste of soyfoods vary widely, so can their nutritional content. Be sure to read labels carefully. Some soy foods, depending on how they’re processed, may pack a lot of sugar, salt, and additives.
Listed below are some of the more common soy foods found in the market today:
Edamame: Edamame are a specialty soybean grown specifically to be picked and used in their immature stage so that they can be eaten fresh. Edamame has small, fuzzy, dark green pods and a mild flavor. These soybeans also have a higher protein and fat content than other beans, though the fat is unsaturated. Moreover, the protein is complete, meaning that it provides the essential amino acids needed in one’s diet. Soybeans are equivalent to animal products in terms of protein quality.
Kecap manis: Kecap (pronounced ket-jap) manis is a type of thick, sweet soy sauce used in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking. Kecap translates as “sauce added to food to enhance flavor” and if you’re thinking that the word sounds a lot like ketchup, you’re right—that’s where our tomato condiment got its name. Kecap manis is made by flavoring a dark soy sauce with palm sugar, star anise, and garlic. It’s used both in cooking and as a table condiment. Look for it in Asian grocery stores.
Meat alternatives (meat analogs): Generally, soy alternatives to meat contain soy protein or tofu and other ingredients mixed together to simulate various kinds of meat, such as soy hot dogs and soy bacon. The products are sold frozen, canned, or dried, and can generally be used the same way as the foods they replace.
Miso: A pungent, salty seasoning paste that originated in Japan, miso is made from a combination of soybeans and a grain such as rice or barley. It is fermented with salt, and sometimes a special mold is injected to produce its distinct, complex flavor. Miso comes in a range of different colors—white, yellow, red, and brown—and the darker the color, the deeper and stronger the flavor. Miso makes a flavorful soup base or seasoning, but use Miso in moderation—it can contain more than 900 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon.
Natto: This fermented soy food is produced by adding the bacterium Bacillus natto to lightly steamed soybeans. After fermenting for 15 to 24 hours, the soybeans develop a brown color, a sticky viscous coating, and a distinctive fermented odor and taste with ammonia overtones. Natto has been described by some as the Roquefort of soy foods. Because the fermentation process breaks down the bean’s proteins, natto is more easily digested than whole soybeans. Natto requires no additional cooking, and is traditionally served as a topping for rice or noodles, in miso soups, or in salads. Natto can be found in Asian markets and health-food stores.
Soybeans: While they come in a variety of colors, the most readily available are yellow and black soybeans. The size and shape of a large pea, soybeans require lengthy soaking and cooking.
Soybean sprouts: More strongly flavored than mung bean sprouts, soy sprouts are a rich source of protein. They do, however, contain small amounts of toxins that can be harmful when the sprouts are eaten in large quantities. To prevent complications, cook soybean sprouts for at least five minutes. If you eat them infrequently, there’s no need to cook them.
Soy cheese: This is a cholesterol-free cheese product (although occasionally dairy products are added) that comes both firm and soft. Soft soy cheese is a good alternative to sour cream or cream cheese, while the firmer cheese can be used as you would dairy cheeses, though it does not melt the way dairy cheeses do. Firm soy cheese is often colored or flavored to resemble particular dairy cheeses, such as mozzarella or cheddar. Check the label carefully as some brands of soy cheese may also contain dairy proteins, such as whey or casein (caseinates), which some people avoid due to allergies or diet preferences. Like regular cheese, soy cheese can be high in sodium and fat, although nonfat varieties are also sold.
Soy flour: Made from roasted soybeans that have been ground into a fine powder, soy flour is a rich source of protein, isoflavones, folate, iron, and magnesium. Soy flour contains almost three times the amount of protein as wheat flour. Soy flour may be used in a number of ways, including adding it to sauces and gravies as a thickener, or to pancake batter for a nutty flavor and protein boost. Though it can be used to enrich breads and other baked goods, it cannot completely replace wheat flour because it has no gluten. Soy flour is available in defatted, low-fat,and full-fat forms. The full-fat flour contains natural soybean oils.
Soy grits and soy flakes: Soy grits are toasted, cracked soybeans that are usually the size of very coarse cornmeal. Soy flakes are made by running lightly dry-roasted whole soybeans through rollers, like rolled oats. Grits are high in protein and may be used the way you might use cracked wheat, as a side dish or cooked with other grains, such as rice, for example. Soy flakes are used the way you would rolled oats, usually cooked and served as a hot cereal.
Soymilk: This is the liquid filtered from soybeans that have been soaked, finely ground, cooked, and strained. Because it is free of the milk-sugar lactose, soymilk is often substituted for cow’s milk by people who have food allergies or who are lactose intolerant. Additionally it is often used as a milk replacement for vegans, environmentalists, or those avoiding animal products. Plain, unfortified soymilk is an excellent source of high-quality protein, B vitamins, and iron. However, because soymilk contains a negligible amount of calcium, some brands are fortified with additional calcium and as well as vitamin D. Others are sweetened or flavored. Plain, unsweetened soymilk is approximately equivalent in calories to fat-free milk, but has about 10 times the fat content. Soymilk is found in both aseptic (nonrefrigerated) and refrigerated cartons. With the growing desire for lower-fat products, nonfat and “lite” soymilks are also on the market. Unopened, aseptically packaged soymilk can be stored at room temperature for several months. Once opened, the soymilk must be refrigerated. It will stay fresh for about five days. Soymilk is also sold as a powder, to be mixed with water. Soymilk powder should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
Soy sauce: A piquant, dark brown, salty condiment that is popular throughout the world, soy sauce is derived from fermented soybeans that are mixed with roasted grain (usually wheat, barley, or rice). This mix is then injected with a special yeast mold, and flavored with salt. The flavor, color, and consistency of soy sauce depend upon how it is processed. Different types of soy sauce include light, dark, mushroom, shoyu, and tamari. Light soy sauce,despite its name, issaltier than the darker varieties. Dark soy sauce is thicker, richer, and more pungent in flavor. Mushroom soy sauce has Chinese straw mushrooms added to it and has a pleasant, rich flavor. Shoyu, which is made in Japan, is a blend of soybeans and wheat. Tamari, also of Japanese origin, should come only from soybeans, but some brands mix in a little wheat (check the label). Tamari is thicker than Chinese-style soy sauce and has a strong, robust flavor that is retained after cooking. Low-sodium and reduced-sodium soy sauces are available in most varieties. Use soy sauce to season dishes, sauces, and marinades. Even reduced-sodium soy sauce is relatively high in sodium, so be sure to use it in small amounts if you are salt sensitive.
Soynut butter: Made from roasted whole soynuts, which are then crushed into spreadable form and blended with soy oil and other ingredients, soynut butter has a slightly nutty taste and significantly less fat than peanut butter.
Soynuts (roasted soybeans): These are soybeans that have been soaked in water and then baked or roasted until lightly browned. They are sold whole or cracked in half and are similar in texture and flavor to peanuts.
Soy protein, textured: Textured soy protein (TSP) usually refers to products made from defatted and dehydrated soy flour, although the term can also be applied to textured soy protein concentrates and spun soy fiber. When hydrated, TSP absorbs flavors well and has a chewy, meat-like texture. It is available in powder form as well as chunks, slices, and granules. It is often added to sauces, casseroles, and stews instead of ground beef. Dehydrated TSP has a long shelf life, and may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three months. Once it is rehydrated, it should be refrigerated and used within a few days. Textured vegetable protein (TVP)is a brand name for a particular type of TSP, but many people simply refer to all textured soy protein as TVP.
Soy protein powder: Popular with body builders who are trying to pump-up on protein, soy protein powder comes as either soy protein concentrate or as soy protein isolate. Soy protein concentrate comes from defatted soy flakes, containing about 70 percent protein and most of the bean’s dietary fiber. Soy protein isolate is a further refinement of defatted flakes, resulting in a product that’s 92 percent protein. Soy protein powder is a greater source of protein than other soyfoods. However, few Americans are deficient in protein. The amount of protein in these products is likely excessive unless you are an extreme athlete. Depending on the brand, one scoop (about 2 heaping tablespoons) of soy protein powder can have about 20 to 28 grams of protein. By contrast, a 4-ounce serving of firm tofu has about 18 grams of protein and an 8-ounce glass of soymilk has only 6 grams of protein. It is important to note that soy protein powder may or may not contain nutritionally significant amounts of isoflavones, depending on how the product is made. Soy protein isolate contains less than soy flour and tofu, but still has significant amounts.
Soy yogurt: Made from soymilk, this product has the texture and consistency of dairy yogurt. Soy yogurt is available in different flavors, with and without active cultures. It is an excellent substitute for sour cream.
Tempeh: This soyfood is a useful meat substitute and originated in Indonesia. To make it, soybeans are cooked, usually with grains like rice or millet, and then aged with a special culture that breaks the cooked beans down and binds the mixture into a firm substance that can be sliced. Tempeh contains more protein than tofu, and is a bit more flavorful. Some find it smoky or nutty, while others say it tastes like chicken. You’ll find tempeh in health food stores and in many supermarkets, either refrigerated or frozen.
Tofu: A versatile cooking ingredient, tofu is a creamy white soy product sold in small blocks. Tofu is also called soybean curd or bean curd. It is made by coagulating the protein of soybeans, in somewhat the same way as cheese is produced. The soybeans are ground with water to produce soymilk, and an ingredient is added to form the soy protein into curds. If the coagulant is calcium sulfate (magnesium sulfate is another common coagulant), the resulting product has a high calcium content. Tofu is very bland, however, it can be cooked in many ways and it absorbs other flavors. Tofu can be stir-fried, broiled, grilled, sautéed, or baked. If marinated first in a spicy sauce, it will have a meaty taste. It can also be pureed to make dips, spreads, salad dressings—even thick shakes and cheesecakes. When mashed, it can be substituted for cottage cheese, ricotta, or even ground beef. With only about 164 calories per 4 ounces of firm tofu, this soy product is a good, high-protein substitute for meat and whole-milk products. But it is also high in fat, with almost 10 grams per 4 ounces, though the fat is mostly unsaturated.
The two basic types of protein are silken and regular.
- Silken tofu resembles custard and is always packaged. It is available in soft, firm, or extra-firm varieties. In addition, you may also find lower-fat or “lite” silken tofu (with less than 1 gram of fat per 4-ounce serving) in each of the three consistencies. Silken tofu can be used in desserts, spreads, sauces, and pie fillings. Pureed soft silken tofu is a good substitute for light cream or milk, while the firmer version can take the place of sour cream or yogurt.
- Regular tofu is more granular than silken tofu and also comes soft, firm, and extra-firm. Chinese-style tofu is often sold in a pillow-shaped block; Japanese-style tofu, which is less compressed, is sold in square-sided blocks. In Asian markets, tofu is often sold in bulk with blocks floating in tubs of water. Individual water-packed plastic containers can be found in the produce section of many supermarkets. You can use this more textured tofu in stews, soups, or salads, or just slice it and eat as is.
Yuba: Yuba is made by lifting and drying the thin layer formed on the surface of heated soymilk once it has cooled. It has a high protein content and is most commonly found as brittle, brown sheets that must be reconstituted before use. Once softened, it can be added to stocks, soups, stews, and the like.