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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist
National Soyfoods Month is almost over, so I hope everyone has been eating lots of soy products for the past four weeks of April. But possibly not: I know more people who harbor a suspicious aversion to anything soy than those who partake of the lowly soybean. As a vegetarian, I rely on the versatility of soy in my diet, but I have met some meat-eaters who would rather have a coronary than knowingly eat a soy product.
The soybean is a legume that has been nourishing the Eastern world for thousands of years, but that only came to the attention of the Western world in the 20th century. The fresh beans can be cooked and eaten, and we may know them better as edamame. Soybeans can also be dried or frozen and cooked later. Soymilk has become a popular alternative to cow's milk, especially since an allergy to milk protein is 80 times more common than soy allergies. Most commonly, however, soy protein is made into other products, like tempeh, miso or tofu. Soy protein can take the place of meat in the human diet. This is not only kinder to animals than that final trip to the slaughterhouse, but also more conducive to a green, sustainable earth.
My children, now grown, were raised as vegetarians. They remember being the weird kid in the class who brought a tofu hotdog in a Ziploc bag to cookouts and birthday parties. They knew the burden of being different. I like to think this built character. They may disagree, but they are now healthy adults who may someday pack tofu hotdogs in Ziploc bags for their children.
There are prevalent myths about soyfoods that can scare people away from enjoying their benefits. The following myths are busted with the caveat that too much of any one thing, whether it is soy or meat or alcohol or sugar or sleep or caffeine or shopping or video games, is never a recipe for a healthful, balanced life. Eaten in moderation and as part of a thoughtful diet, soy does not raise estrogen levels and/or lower testosterone levels in males. Translation: Soy will not make men grow lady-breasts. Consuming soy will not change the hormone levels in women or children, either, or increase the rate of breast cancer. It will not cause allergies, or adversely affect thyroid function. Soy is just not very dangerous to humans.
Soy can, however, help to lower cholesterol levels by replacing other proteins that are high in cholesterol and saturated fats. This in turn can reduce the risk of heart and arterial disease. Soy contains fiber, which aids good digestion. It also shows promise in increasing cognitive function in adults over 60, although more research is needed in this area.
The older I get, the more evidence I see of the importance of taking care of ourselves physically. These bodies are the only ones we're going to get, and we want them to last. Part of caring for our bodies is conscious eating.
It does my heart good, figuratively speaking, to see the variety and availability of soyfoods in mainstream grocery stores. In the olden days, vegetarians had to make expensive trips to health food stores to buy alternatives to meat and dairy products. Now it is common to find several varieties of tofu and tempeh, and even the aforementioned tofu hotdogs, in the produce department of large grocery chains. Next to the cow's milk in the refrigerated section are displays of many flavors, types and brands of soymilk. Soy flour and soy pasta are available for the gluten-free among us. There are soy-based convenience foods in with the frozen foods, and soy snack items with the chips.
Soy even appears in three of the "MyPlate" food groups, the latest federal nutrition icon to promote healthy eating. Soyfoods no longer reside in the odd, bland province of hippies and health freaks: They have their own month! It seems they are here to stay.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com.