Canada is known for its vast expanses of open land; fields of crops stretching out as far as the eye can see. If you’re like me, you’re likely imagining wheat or corn in these landscapes. If so, you’ll be as surprised as I was to find out that soybean is actually Canada’s most important legume crop!
The reason we may not associate soybeans with Canada is because their production was mainly focused in Southern Ontario until the 1970s. The soybean plant originated in Northeastern China and spread to many other Asian countries. Soybeans became a staple in numerous Asian diets, providing essential protein and fat to these populations. It wasn’t until the 17th century when soy sauce because popular in Western countries, that soy eventually made its way to North America. Particularly in the United States, the Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to produce soybeans for animal feed which contributed to its massive growth in recent years. Even still, it took until the 1920s to become a commercial product in Canada.
Currently, soybeans are grown in almost every province in Canada, thanks to the development of varieties that are suitable to different climates. Scientific advances have also allowed for the production of different soybean varieties that cater to international demands. For these reasons it’s not surprising to hear that approximately 65% of soybeans in Canada are genetically engineered, although most are intended for non-food uses.
So, why soybeans? There are many reasons that soybeans have become so popular. For starters, soybeans require minimal added fertilizer, so production costs can stay relatively low. Second, and most importantly, soybeans can be used to make literally hundreds of different products. You may not realize that many of the products we use every day are made from soy. Everything from printing ink to biodiesel to crayons to plastics, were once soybeans. In Canada, most soybeans are used for animal feed or are exported for international use. Like corn, oil can first be extracted from the bean. From the remaining solids, a high-protein food can be used for animal feed. Only a small portion of Canadian soybeans are actually produced for human consumption.
Soybeans as a food are also incredibly versatile and can be consumed with very little processing. Having said that, soy products are now available in many different forms which offer variety to consumers, particularly those who are vegetarian or vegan. Minimally processed items, namely tofu, edamame, soy nuts, tempeh, natto and miso, are great sources of soy. On the other hand, foods like margarine, oil, shortening, and simulated meat (eg. Tofurkey, TVP, veggie ground round) are highly processed foods that are typically nutritionally poor and/or loaded with additives and preservatives.
Are soybeans Dietitian approved? Absolutely!
Soy products are a great source of complete protein, as well as essential fatty acids, isoflavones, fibre, and many micronutrients. They’re a comparable alternative to meat as they provide the protein that we need without the cholesterol-raising side effects. Soy is also ideal for people who are looking for lactose-free alternatives to traditionally used dairy products. When fortified, soy products can provide the same amount of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and zinc as cow’s milk. When choosing soy products, be sure to choose minimally processed items, as mentioned above. If available, choose non-GMO and organic varieties (or local if you can!).
There has been a lot of buzz in the last few years about soy and its association with hormone-related cancers. The motivation for researchers to target soy is because it contains high amounts of isoflavones. Isoflavones are compounds that act as weak estrogen-like compounds in mammals. For this reason, researchers speculated that the isoflavones act like estrogen, and when consumed in high doses, increase the risk of estrogen-sensitive breast cancers. However, research is now showing that this is likely not the case. In fact, soy-containing foods may actually help prevent hormone-related cancers. For breast cancer survivors, about 1-3 servings of soy per day is considered safe to consume. To put this into perspective, one serving of soy is approximately ½ cup of soybeans or 1 cup of soymilk. Like any disease, women with breast cancer should speak to their doctor or registered dietitian about eating soy products.
I recognize that the consumption of soy-containing foods is still under debate. However, when it comes down to it, you have to look at the current research. Soybeans have been consumed for hundreds of years as part of a healthy diet in many Asian countries. As part of a balanced diet, soy can provide many essential nutrients. By choosing products that are minimally processed, you get the benefits of this fine legume without the added junk. If you’re already a soy lover, you’ll know how easy and tasty it is to incorporate soy into everyday dishes. For those of you who are new to the idea, I encourage you to experiment with some of these products for a meatless alternative to your favourite meals.
P.S. Have any favourite soy-based dishes? I’d love to hear about them!