The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Joy of Soy

The Joy of Soy

Health and Wellness

May 25, 2009

If you drive through the countryside in the coming weeks, you’ll see farmers out and about in their fields. They are planting all kinds of seeds, from smaller-acre crops, like vegetables, to large-acre crops like wheat and field corn.

In addition to these and several other crops, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that farmers will be planting more soybeans in 2009 than in any other year in our nation’s history. Farmers in more than 30 states grow the crop for a variety of uses.

There are lots of reasons that factor in to a grower’s planting decision, including his or her experience growing a particular crop, input costs or commodity price. But what are soybeans used for after they’ve been harvested? The answers might surprise you.

While perusing the aisles of your neighborhood grocery store, the most visible association you might have with soybeans is edamame, which is a certain variety of young, green soybean. Tofu and soymilk are also well known, popular uses of the crop. Of course, the list of uses for soy extends far beyond the supermarket.

The reason is that soybeans are one of the most versatile crops grown in the United States. The seemingly nondescript soybean is composed of two basic, but valuable, components: the meal and the oil. 

Let’s start with the meal. Soybean meal is an important source of protein, and is used in several different ways. Energy bars and tofu are nice examples of soy protein that we might consume directly. However, those uses pale in comparison to the livestock industry. The livestock industry is the largest consumer of soy meal today. Soy provides a complete source of protein, and soy meal products are rich in vitamins and minerals, including folate, potassium and, in some cases, fiber.

Now, the oil. Soybeans are known as an oilseed, and for good reason. Soybeans represent more than 70 percent of the edible consumption of fats and oils in the United States. That oil goes into all kinds of products, including jugs of vegetable oil, snack crackers and industrial fryers. It also goes into plenty of things we don’t eat, including bioplastics (for things like shelving), fuel for cars (biodiesel), foam for seats (auto manufacturers like Ford are using soy-based foam), ink (for more than 90 percent of America’s newspapers) and even clothing (a new company is making underwear out of fibers produced from soybean oil).

“Our nation’s soybean farmers are interested in taking a great crop and making it even better,” said Jim Stillman, a farmer-leader of the United Soybean Board, an organization comprised of farmer-directors who oversee the investments of the soybean checkoff on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. “New soybean varieties benefit U.S. soybean farmers because they build demand and further the use of soybeans, and they’re good for consumers and the food industry too, because they provide ingredients for the healthier products that the public demands today.”

People are working on ways to produce even healthier oil from soybeans – or just more of them to feed a growing world population. Just this past year, a farmer in southeastern Missouri yielded three times the state’s yield average. Charlie Hinkebein of Chaffee, Missouri, yielded 109 bushels per acre in the Missouri Soybean Association’s 2008 Yield Contest, and he did so through careful agronomic management practices and without irrigation. 

That’s why industry researchers are developing new technologies to help farmers like Hinkebein grow more – and healthier – beans. Using the tools of breeding and biotechnology, companies are developing even higher yielding varieties, and varieties that boast lower saturated fat and other properties important for healthier frying and baking applications. In fact, new varieties of soybeans are an important method for food manufacturers to reformulate their products with zero grams of trans fat.

From cooking oil to food ingredients, soybeans offer consumers, food companies and restaurants a heart-healthier alternative. Adding 25 grams to a healthy diet may help lower blood cholesterol levels. Soy may even help improve bone density and prevent some forms of cancer. To take advantage of the health benefits of soy, two servings a day are encouraged, according to the United Soybean Board.

So, as U.S. farmers plant soybeans this spring, it won’t be long before the fruits of the 2009 crop end up on – or in – our stores’ shelves. A total of 28 new soy-based products became a reality in 2008.