If the only soy in your diet comes from the soy sauce you sprinkle on chow mein, you may be missing out on more than just a tasty and versatile food. Soy is an inexpensive way to add protein to your diet and may also help reduce fat when substituted for meat in traditional dishes.

Soy products come from the soybean, a legume native to northern China. The United States now produces much of the world's soybeans. There are more than 1,000 varieties of soybeans. They range in size from a pea to a cherry. Colors include red, yellow, green, brown, and black. The protein in soy is a "complete" protein — the most complete you can get from vegetable sources — and just as good nutritionally as animal protein. In fact, there is more protein in 1 cup of soybeans than in 3 ounces of cooked meat. In addition, soy beans are an excellent source of a variety of nutrients, including iron, vitamin B6, and phosphorus, and a good source of potassium and calcium. Also, they are rich in the phytochemicals called isoflavones.

Soybeans are usually processed into other products. For example, soy oil is used to make ink for newspapers. Soybean products are added to a variety of foods during processing. Many foods, though, are made almost entirely from soy (see sidebar: "Soy" Many Products to Choose From, page 333).

For cultures in which soy is the main source of protein, rates of cardiovascular disease and some kinds of cancers are relatively low. Researchers are also looking into whether soy plays a role in preventing osteoporosis and easing hot flashes associated with menopause. Some studies suggest there may be a link (see Chapter 2 sidebar: Soy What? page 34).

Although it may be too early to make specific health claims for soy, there is evidence that adding soy to your diet makes good nutritional sense. And, you may just discover a whole new range of healthful food products to enjoy.

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