Tofu—also called bean curd—is made with soybeans and was invented more than 2,000 years ago in China. Soy products have been a bit of a mystery to consumers, especially those who don’t often veer from traditional American cuisine.
But lately soybeans (or edamame) and soy products such as tofu and soy milk have made their way into mainstream grocery stores and restaurants. Soy-based products are a low-fat, cholesterol-free source of protein, which builds muscles, bones, skin and the antibodies that power your immune system and protect you from disease. They’re also high in calcium, which builds healthy bones and teeth and can help prevent or minimize osteoporosis.
If that weren’t enough, soy may help you lose weight: A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition suggests that eating more soy can lower your body mass index (a health indicator that compares your weight to your height).
Buying Tofu and Other Soy Products
When grocery shopping for soy products, use these three rules:
1. Keep it simple
Look for soy milk, tofu, and whole soybeans. Avoid meat substitutes made with soy because they’re heavily processed and often high in sodium. Firm tofu is a low-fat alternative to meat in salads, stir-fries or sandwiches; silken or soft tofu can substitute for dairy in dips, sauces, soups and pudding. If you’re trying silken tofu for the first time, consider a 50/50 mixture, such as half yogurt, half tofu in a smoothie.
2. Reach for whole soy
Look for the phrase "whole soybeans" or "whole soy" on the label to ensure you’re getting a product high in fiber— which aids in digestion and helps maintain healthy cholesterol and blood glucose levels — and other healthy nutrients. Whole soy may even help protect against some cancers, though recent studies have been conducted only on animals.
3. Look for organic choices
Organic soy is free of toxins such as synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides and does not contain genetically modified organisms, which are currently being studied for their possible link to food allergies.
Smart Soy Staples
Small Planet Tofu
Why I love it: It’s flavored with seasonings like green tea and lemongrass.
Make It a Meal: Toss baby greens with white balsamic vinegar and citrus juice; top with chilled wild rice, green tea tofu and sliced almonds.
Cascadian Farms Frozen Shelled Edamame
Why I love it: The only ingredient is soybeans.
Make It a Meal: Fill warm corn tortillas with thawed edamame, sliced strawberries and avocado, then top with balsamic vinegar.
Pearl Soy Milk
Why I love it: It’s ideal for light smoothies.
Make It a Meal: In a blender, whip 1 cup soy milk, 1 cup frozen blueberries, 2 Tbsp almond butter, 1⁄4 cup rolled oats and a dash of ground cloves.
Just Tomatoes, Etc. Just Soy Nuts
Why I love it: These dry-roasted soybeans have no added sodium.
Make It a Meal: Toss popcorn with soy nuts, dried cranberries and a little chipotle seasoning.
Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., is the author of Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches (HarperOne, 2011).
From our sister publication, Remedy, Summer 2011