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Is All Soy Equal?

A complete protein, Soy is a popular replacement for dairy and meat used by vegetarians and vegans. Derived from soybean legume, soy is rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, fiber, and potassium. Though viewed by many as a health food, not all soy products are created equal.

You can find soy both fermented and unfermented. The degree of processing varies from soy flour and soy protein, to more traditional foods like miso, tempeh, and tofu. Highly processed items to which you will want to limit include soy cheese, soy yogurt, and imitation meats.

You will want to focus on these traditional forms to maintain the soy’s nutrient density.


A thick paste made from fermented soybeans, rice, or barley malt

To make miso, soybeans, salt, mold culture, and a grain like rice or barley are mixed together and then aged in cedar vats for 1–3 years. The rich condiment adds a salty, tangy flavor to soups, salad dressings, sauces, marinades, and vegetable dishes. Because miso is made with added salt, taste your dish carefully before seasoning with more salt.


Finely ground soybeans, soaked and strained to produce a milky liquid

Soy milk is made by soaking dry soybeans, grinding them with water, and filtering the liquid. This fat-free, high-protein liquid can be a cow’s milk substitute for vegetarians, vegans, and those with dairy allergies/intolerances. Store-bought soy milk can be highly processed and loaded with additives and sugar, so check labels diligently and buy wisely.

TOFU also now as Soybean curd

Tofu is made by coagulating hot soy milk and pressing the curds together into a block. There are two main categories of tofu: fresh and processed. Fresh varieties include soft/silken, made by coagulating soy milk without curdling it; firm, which is drained and pressed; and extra firm, the driest of all forms.

Processed tofu includes fermented, flavored, dried, fried, and frozen variations often used in imitation meat products. Tofu doesn’t have a distinguishable flavor on its own but easily absorbs the flavors of savory and sweet dishes it’s used in. This versatile food is high in calcium, iron, and protein.


Whole soybeans fermented into a cake or patty

Tempeh is a rich, tender soybean cake made from fermented soybeans and sometimes another grain like rice or millet. Tempeh has a nutty and almost smoky flavor. This low-fat and high-protein soy product frequently replaces animal protein in vegetarian dishes. Tempeh is delicious when grilled and added to soups, casseroles, and stir-frys or when prepared in the same way as a veggie burger. As a fermented food, tempeh can help support gut health.


Whole, mature soybeans that have been soaked in water, then roasted

Soy nuts resemble peanuts in taste and texture. They can be flavored, salted, or unsalted. Soy nuts are a satisfying snack and can add a flavorful crunch to salads and grains. They pack a nutritional punch, but be mindful of additives, preservatives, and salt.


Edamame are large soybeans that are harvested at the peak of ripening when the beans are immature and still green. Edamame is naturally sweet and is frequently served salted. Boil the beans in the pods (or alone) for 15–20 minutes for a snack, appetizer, or side dish filled with protein and fiber.

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