How Soy Went From Fringe Food to Popular Meat Substitute


Global soy production has doubled in the last decade. While 80 percent of the world’s soy is fed to animals, it is a popular used for meat substitutes and starting to play a larger role in many people’s diets. This vegetable, long cultivated and consumed in East Asia, comes in numerous forms and carries with it numerous health benefits.

What Is Soy?   

Soy is a protein-rich legume native to East Asia. The earliest archaeological evidence for the consumption of soy comes from China around 7000 BC. The soy plant was fully domesticated at some point in the first millennium BC, possibly across several locations in Korea, Japan, and China. As a result of this long heritage, East Asians continue to be the largest per capita consumers of soy, which features prominently in their cuisine. 

It is also a highly versatile product, which can be processed into many forms; milk, sauce, tofu, beans, burgers, and so on. As a meat and milk substitute, soy can be used in place of animal products for a large number of dishes, making it a useful ally for anyone reducing or eliminating animal products from their diet.

Types And Uses

Green Soybeans

Green soybeans are simply soybeans in an immature stage of development. Green soybeans are typically harvested about 30 to 45 days after the plant flowers, and harvesting at this early stage gives them several different characteristics. They tend to have a higher level of sucrose, and are thus sweeter, contain more free amino acids, and possess a crunchy, vegetable-forward flavor.

Yellow Soybeans

Yellow soybeans are standard soybeans when fully ripe. These are perhaps the most ubiquitous variety used in cooking and form the basis of soy milk, soy sauce, tempeh, tofu, tamari, and meat alternatives.

Black Soybeans

Black soybeans are a rarer variation of soybean found in East Asia, also used in cuisine and traditional medicine. Their black color derives from a high concentration of anthocyanins in their seed coat. The high anthocyanin count makes black soybeans powerful antioxidants, which can be good for your health. Black soybeans can help prevent the emergence of certain chronic diseases.

What Is Soy Lecithin?

Lecithins are a group of fatty substances found in plant and animal tissues, including soy. Soy lecithin is often used as an emulsifier and added to numerous products, like dietary supplements, infant formulas, bread, and ice cream. There is no cause to be wary of soy lecithin, as its health benefits are numerous and verifiable. It is a source of the essential nutrient choline, can lead to the decrease of unhealthy cholesterols, and can be consumed by most people who otherwise have soy allergies, save the extremely severe cases.


Soy is a highly nutritious food. It is one of the best plant-based sources of protein and one of the few plants which is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. The exact nutritional balance of soy will depend on how it’s prepared. So, for example, whole soybeans are around 16 percent protein whereas tempeh is 19 percent and tofu is only 8 percent. These are still high amounts, and if served with another source of protein like rice the 55 grams for men and 45 grams for women protein limits should be easily met.

What Foods Contain Soy?       


Edamame are green soybeans that are traditionally served whole, in their pods, with a pinch of salt. People have been eating edamame for centuries. The first recorded instance of the word “edamame” comes from 1275. They are a conventional bar snack in East Asia, and their popularity is growing in the West.

Meat Alternatives

No vegan meat product is the same as another, although there are plenty made from soy. Soy makes for an excellent meat analog because of its high protein content and its sometimes meaty texture. Meat alternatives are far better for the environment than conventional meat products and can taste very appetizing. However, the health-conscious consumer should be aware of salt contents, which can be quite high in fake-meat products.


Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning made from fermenting soybeans with salt and kōji, a special type of fungus. The result is a paste that can be used to season dishes, like miso soup, ubiquitous in Japan. Miso has several health benefits which it accrues during the fermentation process. It is rich in enzymes and probiotics, healthy bacteria which assist in the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients.

Soy Nuts

Soy nuts are ripe soybeans that have been soaked in water, drained, and either roasted or baked, making a crunchy nut-like texture. Their versatility makes them an excellent way to consume soy. They can be put into salads, smoothies, cereal, stir-fries, and pasta dishes. 

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is made using a detailed process that can take years. Soybeans are first cleaned and soaked before being steamed, mixed with wheat flour, and a yeast culture before being fermented for up to two years before filtration and bottling. There are different varieties of soy sauce, and Chinese and Japanese soy sauces come in differing forms and have unique flavors and strengths. Tamari, a Japanese soy sauce, deserves a mention because wheat flour is omitted from the manufacturing process, making it suitable for gluten-free consumers.

Soy milk   

Soy milk is made by soaking soybeans, removing their skins, blending them with water, and then draining them. The remaining milk is then heated, cooled, and stored, ready for drinking. Soy milk can be a good alternative to dairy. It has a high protein content and is often fortified with B12 and calcium, to make it equivalent in nutritional value to cow’s milk. 


Tempeh is made by fermenting soy and allowing it to naturally bind together into a kind of cake. It originates from Indonesia and the island of Java, where it remains a staple food to this day. Tempeh is a high-protein soy product, with more protein than other soy variants. It is also a good source of calcium, healthy prebiotics, magnesium, and iron.

Textured Soy Protein

Textured vegetable protein is a form of soy invented in the 1960s to resemble the texture of meat. It has no natural flavor but is a rich source of protein and iron and is often seasoned to taste like beef, bacon, ham, chicken, or sausage. 


Legend has it that tofu was invented accidentally by a Chinese chef 2000 years ago, who added soy milk to nigari, which is seawater with the salt removed, creating a rudimentary version of what we know today as tofu. Tofu is made by curdling soy milk, using a process that is very similar to how cow’s milk is turned into cheese. Tofu has grown in popularity in the West since the 1960s when interest in healthy foods began to grow. Tofu is often used as a meat substitute and is a staple of cuisines across East and Southeast Asia. It can come in firm, soft or crispy textures.

Whole Soybeans

Although they are not very common in the West, whole soybeans are highly delicious and nutritious and can be eaten like any other bean. Boil them in water, as described here, and eat them with rice. You can also add them to pasta sauce or a stew and benefit from their high protein and nutrient contents.

Is Soy Good for You? Here Are Its Health Benefits:   

Improve Bone Health

Women who are experiencing menopause can sometimes develop osteoporosis after low estrogenic levels cause calcium to leach from their bones. There is some evidence that consuming between 100 grams and 400 grams of soy per day can help reverse this problem, although there is not enough data to make ironclad conclusions.

Long-Term Kidney Disease

There is compelling evidence that soy is an excellent substitute for animal protein when treating people with chronic kidney disease. Some suggestions as to why soy provides superior treatment to animal protein are that it has a lower sodium and phosphorus content. However, more research is again warranted to shore up these conclusions.

Lower Blood Pressure

Evidence suggests that consuming soy can help lower one’s blood pressure to a small degree. This effect is particularly noticeable in subjects who have high blood pressure. This effect is thought to occur because of soy’s high arginine content, an amino acid believed to regulate blood pressure.   

Lower Blood Sugar

Several studies have linked consuming soy to lower blood pressure, with the best evidence relating to menopausal women. Tofu consumption has also shown some effectiveness in treating type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome sufferers as well. However, other studies failed to link soy consumption and blood sugar control in those with type 2 diabetes.

Lower Cholesterol Levels

In some studies, soy has been proven to lower the rates of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in humans. Soy products that have been minimally processed, like soybeans, tofu, edamame, or tempeh, were shown to have the greatest effect. A high soy diet has the most positive impact on those with existing indicators for heart disease, like high cholesterol, obesity, or type 2 diabetes.

Managing Obesity

Soy products can help manage obesity and weight loss in general. One study on non-Asian postmenopausal women described a significant improvement in weight loss attributed to the presence of isoflavones in soy. However, meta-analyses covering soy and obesity in both humans and animals strongly suggest that soy consumption favors weight loss and works against obesity in particular.

May Improve Fertility

Consuming soy may improve fertility in women, according to some studies. Men, however, do not seem to benefit in this way from eating soy. However, there is evidence that consuming very large amounts of soy can negatively impact fertility. However, even a “large” intake, up to four servings of soy per day, will likely have no negative impact.

Protect Heart Health   

Eating soy improves heart health and reduces heart disease by lowering bad cholesterol and upping good cholesterol in the body. How severely it impacts these levels can vary, although the impact remains positive. Swapping out red meat for soy can be a particularly effective way to ensure that you get the cardiovascular benefits of having soy in your diet.

Reduce Menopause Symptoms

Soy has been linked to the reduction of menopause symptoms across numerous different dimensions. Some studies have shown a reduction in the severity of hot flashes and night sweats, although this has been disputed. Soy has also been associated with decreasing incidences of vaginal dryness.

Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer

The isoflavones, or phytoestrogens, found in soy have been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. There has been some fear that isoflavones aggravate breast cancer, but these concerns were based on animal studies, which should not be extrapolated to humans. However, the Shanghai Women’s Health Study, which followed over 70,000 women over 7 years, showed that those who consumed the highest amounts of soy had a 22 percent lower chance of getting breast cancer than those who consumed the least. 

There have been objections to these findings, primarily that the long-lasting prevalence of soy in East Asian cuisine means that Asian people receive more benefits and fewer downsides to soy than Western populations. However, a study on an ethnically diverse group of breast cancer survivors from the U.S. revealed that those who consumed the most phytoestrogens had a 21 percent lower all-cause mortality rate than the rest of the cohort.

Reduce The Risk Of Other Types Of Cancer

Soy products also reduce the rate of prostate cancer in men. This has been validated by several studies detailed below.

Asian men experience the lowest rates of prostate cancer globally, and one study showed that the rates of prostate cancer increased in Asian men who moved to America and adopted a Western diet while staying the same in those who maintained their traditional diet. A meta-analysis of studies exploring this connection concluded that there is a definite link between eating soy and reduced rates of prostate cancer.

Reduced Symptoms Of Galactosemia

Galactosemia is a rare condition where galactose, a type of sugar present in cow’s milk and most baby formulas, cannot be digested by the body. Soy milk could be the perfect alternative formula for a child who suffers from galactosemia. In the Netherlands, for example, it is the recommended treatment for galactosemic infants.

Reducing The Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes

Studies have established a link between consuming soy and the prevention of type 2 diabetes. As discussed above, soy consumption reduces kidney disease, heart health, and obesity, all of which are associated with type 2 diabetes.

Should I Worry About Consuming Soy?

There is a mountain of disinformation surrounding soy consumption. We’ll address as many of them as we can here.

Firstly, it is true that soy farming has been very environmentally destructive in certain corners of the globe. The Amazon is a regular point of reference here, and critics of human soy consumption often point to soy farming’s role in deforestation there. But this is a problematic approach for several reasons. Firstly, cattle ranching is by far the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, accounting for up to 80 percent of the land cleared. Secondly, almost none of the soy that Western consumers eat comes from the Amazon Rainforest. Leading soy brands like Alpro grow their soy sustainably in Europe. 

On top of this, the soy that is grown in the Amazon is grown for animal feed, where 80 percent of global soy goes. It is not soy farming per se that is unsustainable, but animal industries that rely on it as feed.

Secondly, the idea that soy makes people “more effeminate” because it contains estrogen is also inaccurate. Most data regarding feminization comes from animal studies, whose results have not been matched by human research. There were two reports of individual men who had hormonal problems after eating very large quantities of soy. These were exceptionally large amounts of soy, and these two people do not represent a large enough sample size to draw scientific conclusions from.

Further, a meta-analysis of numerous reports and studies on the subject found no evidence of a correlation between consuming soy and a reduction in testosterone levels. As for soy engendering “physical weakness,” another study revealed that supplementing your diet with additional soy instead of meat to put on muscle mass had the same effectiveness.

What Is a Soy Allergy?   

Soy is an allergenic food, and around 0.3 percent of people are allergic. Soy allergies tend to be mild, with symptoms like itchiness on the lips or in the mouth, some facial swelling, wheezing, abdominal pain, or red skin. Severe allergic reactions to soy are rare but do exist. If you are allergic to soy make sure to check products like cereals and bread, which sometimes contains soy. There are numerous healthy plant-based sources of protein if soy is not an option.

Healthy, Versatile Food

Soy is a highly versatile and nutritious food, with numerous health benefits and varied culinary potential. It is rich in protein and has been a staple for dozens of differing Asian cuisines for millennia. It is a food with an exciting past and future and is an excellent choice for both the generic food-enthusiast and for those who seek to move away from animal slaughter and towards a plant-based paradigm.