Soy Reconsidered: Is the Magic Bean a Magic Bullet

On almost every list of the 10 healthiest foods, you'll find soy. This seemingly "magic bean" has been reputed to help prevent heart disease, ease the discomforts of menopause, slow bone loss and even ward off certain cancers. So recent findings in the journal Circulation that almost all of soy's health benefits have been vastly overrated came as a real shock.

A team of top nutrition researchers, organized by the American Heart Association, reviewed dozens of the most recent studies on soy. Consider the most prominent claim: that soy dramatically lowers LDL, the artery-clogging form of cholesterol. In 1999, the FDA gave foods that contain at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving the green light to boast that they lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease. Trouble is, recent randomized trials suggest that soy may not deliver on that promise. On average, studies now show, LDL falls a mere three points-and that's among volunteers who consume around 50 grams of soy per day or about half their total protein. "If you buy a box of cereal because a serving has 6.25 grams of soy, expecting to lower your LDL and your risk of heart disease, you're likely to be disappointed," says Tufts University researcher Alice Lichtenstein, a member of the review panel.

Blood pressure? Soy has no benefit, the panel concluded. Hot flashes during menopause? Only three of eight studies showed any improvement, and even that was modest and short-lived. Osteoporosis? Studies suggest that even if there is a benefit, it's far from dramatic. The biggest disappointment, perhaps, is that soy doesn't seem to offer much protection against hormone-related cancers, such as breast, endometrial, and prostate cancer.

"We don't know why early studies showed such positive results and more recent ones haven't," admits Penn State nutrition expert Penny Kris-Etherton, another member of the AHA panel. But the recent findings are so discouraging, she believes, that the FDA should reconsider whether products containing soy should be allowed to put health claims on their labels.

Not everyone has given up on soy. Michael Adams, a professor of pathology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, recently showed in animal experiments that components in soy protein can dramatically reduce the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, which clog arteries and lead to heart attacks. "Our work suggests that soy may lower cardiovascular risk through a very different mechanism than reducing LDL," says Adams. "The fact is, no one has yet done a large prospective study to test whether soy protein reduces heart disease." For his part, Adams suspects that it does.

Even the members of the AHA panel, despite their gloomy assessment, remain keen on the bean. "Soybeans are a great source of good protein, polyunsaturated fat, and fiber," says Kris-Etherton. "If soy protein is used instead of fatty meat, no question it's healthier."

Bottom Line:
The real advantage of soy-based foods like tofu may be their ability to stand in for meat, thus reducing saturated fat on the menu.

Recipes

Long-Life Noodles with Green Tea
Many famous dishes cooked with tea come from the Yangtze River Valley where there are countless tea farms. A popular way of serving noodles during Wuhan's very hot summers is to combine them with ingredients like tofu and green tea that are considered "cooling" in Chinese culture.

Makes 4 servings

ACTIVE TIME: 30 minutes
TOTAL TIME: 30 minutes
EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy

8 ounces udon or whole-wheat noodles
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon loose green tea leaves, preferably gunpowder (optional)
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces flavored baked tofu (see Shopping Tip), cut into matchsticks
1 small red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 small yellow bell pepper, cut into thin strips
4 scallions, cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook noodles according to the package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking. Set aside.
  2. Heat a wok over medium heat. Add oil and swirl to coat. Add tea leaves (if using), ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tofu and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add red and yellow bell peppers and cook, stirring, until the peppers soften, 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Stir in the noodles, scallions, soy sauce and rice vinegar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles are heated through, about 2 minutes. Stir in sesame oil and pepper. Toss to combine. Serve warm or cold.

NUTRITION INFORMATION: Per serving: 420 calories; 16 g fat (2 g sat, 5 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 47 g carbohydrate; 22 g protein; 5 g fiber; 593 mg sodium; 263 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin C (100% daily value), Vitamin A (40% dv), Iron (25% dv). 3 Carbohydrate Servings. Exchanges: 2 1/2 starch, 1 vegetable, 2 medium fat meat, 1 fat

Shopping Tip: Precooked "baked tofu" is firmer than water-packed tofu and comes in a wide variety of flavors. We prefer flavors like "teriyaki," "Thai" and "savory" in this recipe. You might also like flavored baked tofu on a sandwich or in a stir-fry.

Healthy Tofu Recipes and Cooking Tips

Southwestern Tofu Scramble
Cooking crumbled firm tofu in a skillet approximates the fluffy texture of scrambled eggs in this vegetable-studded, vegetarian main dish. Enjoy it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Serve with steamed corn tortillas, some extra salsa and black beans.

Makes 4 servings, about 3/4 cup each

ACTIVE TIME: 30 minutes
TOTAL TIME: 30 minutes
EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy

3 teaspoons canola oil, divided
1 14-ounce package firm water-packed tofu, rinsed and crumbled
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
1 small zucchini, diced
3/4 cup frozen corn, thawed
4 scallions, sliced
1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup prepared salsa
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add tofu, chili powder, cumin and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until the tofu begins to brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons oil to the pan. Add zucchini, corn, scallions and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are just tender, about 3 minutes. Return the tofu to the pan and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat and stir in cheese until just melted. Top each serving with 2 tablespoons salsa and 1 tablespoon cilantro.

NUTRITION INFORMATION: Per serving: 202 calories; 12 g fat (4 g sat, 5 g mono); 13 mg cholesterol; 12 g carbohydrate; 13 g protein; 3 g fiber; 501 mg sodium; 422 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Calcium (35% daily value), Vitamin C (20% dv), Iron & Vitamin A (15% dv). 1 Carbohydrate Serving. Exchanges: 2 vegetable, 1 1/2 medium fat meat, 1 fat.

Healthy Recipe Collections

Coconut-Crusted Tofu with Peach-Lemongrass Salsa
The crunchy-crisp tofu and our spicy-sweet salsa are inspired by that restaurant-chain classic, deep-fried coconut shrimp. Make it a meal: Stir fresh cilantro into basmati rice and serve alongside. Try sliced bananas drizzled with "lite" coconut milk for dessert.

Makes 4 servings, 2 tofu steaks & 2/3 cup salsa each

ACTIVE TIME: 35 minutes
TOTAL TIME: 35 minutes
EASE OF PREPARATION: Moderate

3 medium peaches, peeled, pitted and diced
1-2 jalapenos, preferably red, seeded and minced
1 2-inch piece fresh lemongrass, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried (see Note)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon rice-wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/3 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 14-ounce package extra-firm water-packed tofu, drained
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Set a wire rack on a large baking sheet.
  2. Combine peaches, jalapenos, lemongrass, basil, brown sugar, vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl; toss to combine.
  3. Mix coconut, flour and cornstarch in a shallow dish. Cut the block of tofu lengthwise into 8 thin steaks. Pat the tofu slices dry with a paper towel, sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, then press both sides of each tofu steak into the coconut mixture.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 4 tofu steaks and cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side, adjusting heat as necessary to prevent scorching. Transfer the tofu steaks to the rack-lined baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in the skillet over medium-high heat; cook the remaining tofu steaks until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Serve the tofu with the peach salsa.

NUTRITION INFORMATION: Per serving: 251 calories; 16 g fat (4 g sat, 9 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 19 g carbohydrate; 11 g protein; 3 g fiber; 491 mg sodium; 313 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Calcium (20% daily value), Magnesium (16% dv), Iron (15% dv). 1 Carbohydrate Serving. Exchanges: 1 other carbohydrate, 1 medium-fat meat, 2 fat

Note: Lemongrass, essential to Thai and Vietnamese cooking, is an edible grass with bright lemon fragrance and taste. Find it fresh in the produce section of large supermarkets, at Asian food stores and chopped and dried in specialty spice sections. Purchase from Penzeys Spices, (800) 741-7787, www.penzeys.com.

Healthy Recipe Collections

From www.eatingwell.com with permission. © 2008 Eating Well Inc.

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