The Golden Bean: Soy

Did you know that Soybeans have been in use since the 6000 BC in China? Researchers speculate that this could be one of the first domesticated crops in the region. It took 1000 years or more to just domesticate this crop and bring it to a form that we are able to recognize today. What is now considered as a miracle bean of the new world is in fact, old wine in a new bottle.

Back then soybean did not have its multiple attires like we see today. This bean was chosen primarily because of its leguminous nature. The farmers alternated growing this crop with other cereals in their crop rotation cycles.

A Chinese myth mentions the legendary Emperor Shennong of China proclaiming 5 sacred plants: Soy, rice, wheat, barley, and millet. Archaeological evidence shows that Soy was heavily cultivated for long periods of time. This was mostly in modern-day Japan, Korea, and Northern China. There is much debate about where Soy originated and how it spread over the thousands of years that have passed.

The oldest preserved Soy which resembles the varieties we have today have been found in archaeological sites in Korea dating 1000 BC. It is known that during the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BC) soybeans became a very important crop. Soybean curd or tofu was invented in China during the Han Dynasty between (206 and 220 AD). From here it spread to Japan in the year 700 AD. Records claim that soybeans in Asia were used only after fermentation.

Soy, silk, tea, and teacups (read porcelain) were one of the first goods that China exported. Some time during the 12th-century soy was introduced to Java. Soy was practically unknown to the whole of South China before this period. And by the 13th century, it was being cultivated around Indonesia. The earliest known reference to the now well known Tempeh is from a document dated to be from the 17th century. By this time European traders carried the beans to Portugal, Spain, Dutch and then the Indian subcontinent.

In the year 1765, Samuel Bowen a sailor from the East India Company brought Soy from his visit to China. New World Soy was developed in Georgia by Henry Yonge possibly with seeds borrowed from Bowen. Bowen cultivated soy near Savannah, Georgia and made soy sauce for sale to England. Although Soy reached America in 1765, it was used primarily as a forage crop until the 1920s.

Soy sauce was popular in Europe and British colonies much before the beans reached these regions. It wasn’t until 1851 that the beans were distributed to farmers for cultivation. It was quite a hit among the farmers as a forage crop for the livestock.

George Washington Carver discovered in 1904 that this bean could be a great source of protein and oil. From then on, it was encouraged among farmers to rotate soy crops or any other leguminous crops like peanuts, with cotton. To the farmer’s surprise, this produced a much better cotton crop than anything that had seen before.

Until Lafayette Mendel and Thomas Burr Osborne showed that the nutrition value of Soy can be increased by cooking/heating/moisture that soy became human food, from animal feed.

Meanwhile, in the year 1873, China displayed soybeans at the Vienna World Exposition. Prof. Friedrich J. Haberlandt cultivated the first soybean crop at Vienna in 1875. He started off with 19 varieties which he got a hand of at the fair. He sent these seeds to different farmers who cultivated them and reported results back to him. He published the results in various journal articles, concluding with his magnum opus Die Sojanohne (The Soybean) in 1878. The Hitter youth manual promoted Soy in the 1930s with the name “Nazi Beans”, as an alternative to meat.

William Morse is known as “the father of modern soybean agriculture” in America. He and Charles Piper took an unknown oriental peasant crop and transformed it into the “Golden Bean” in 1910. One of America’s largest farm crops and it’s most nutritious.

Prior to 1920 soy was used mainly for forage, a source of oil, a meal for cattle feed and industrial products. After World War I, during the Great Depression, the United States used soy to regenerate the soil. Due to its nitrogen-fixing properties. Farms started to increase production to meet government demands. Unexpectedly, Henry Ford became a great leader in the soybean industry.

Ford hired chemists in 1931 to produce artificial silk from soy protein fibers. They named this textile fiber Azlon. This was used to make suits, felt hats, and overcoats. This somehow never hit the commercial market though. It was overtaken by Dupont’s nylon which was considered to have a closer semblance to silk.

By 1935, everything produced by Ford had some soy in it. Soybean oil was used to pain the automobiles and as fluid in the shock absorbers. Ford demonstrated endless possibilities with Soy-based products. Scientists at Ford’s lab made strong enough plastic for gear shift knobs, horn buttons, window frames, pedals, light-switch assembles, ignition-coil casings and auto body panels. Using all of these parts, the “Soybean Car” was developed in the year 1941. Ford even demonstrated the first soy milk, ice cream, and all vegetable non-dairy whipped topping.

In 1919, William Morse who co-founded the American Soybean Association became its first President. At this time only 20 varieties of soybean were known. In 1929, Morse spent two years gathering soybeans in China. He brought back 10,000 soybean varieties for study.

In the 1940s when the Soybean production in China was halted by World War II and other internal revolutions, the US took over production. With war, there was increased demand for oils, lubricants, plastics and other products made of Soy. The farmers in the US produced all the needed bean. Post-war, the US saw great prosperity. The meat industry was booming and all the preferred source of protein was soybean meal. Tons of soybean meal was fed to cattle during this period and this has been the preferred choice ever since.

In the 1990s, one of the greatest advances in agriculture was made with regard to the soybean. There were improved varieties developed, that can withstand the effect of herbicides. This meant farmers could kill other weeds without destroying their main crop. This has resulted in new production practices that are gaining acceptance across the globe. It is being spread to Africa and Asia with the front, that this kind of technology will feed many more people on the same amount of land. North Carolina is one of the largest producers of soy. But not just that, it also has one of the largest port and poultry industries in the world. It’s imports of soybeans and soybean meal rank as high as many entire countries.

Why all this fuss over beans?!

Soy is considered the “King of Beans”. Going by dry weight it contains about 38% protein. Gram for gram that is twice as much as pork and three times more than egg, twelve times more than milk. Besides, the range of essential amino acids present in soybeans is much higher than most other foods. The dry seeds have only 18.4 percent unsaturated fat.

With all of its versatile properties, soy is present in a lot more foods than you might suspect. As of today, soy is consumed both as the whole bean and as products such as tofu and soy sauce. But most Americans consume soy indirectly. The vast majority of soy is converted into high protein soymeal and fed to cattle, which in turn consumed. Besides that Soy is also processed into margarine and other consumer goods such as cosmetics and soaps. Soy derivatives such as the emulsifier lecithin are used in a wide range of foods including chocolates, ice creams, and baked goods.

Foods made specially from Soy:

While soy is included with other foods as an additive, there are certain foods that are specific to these beans. They include soymeal protein which is a meat substitute, tofu, tempeh, and miso. Besides that soy milk is converted into yogurt, cheese, mayonnaise and other sauces.

So why is Soy so Good?!

  1. Substitute Meat: Soy protein is a superb substitute for regular meat. While meats coming along with their excessive fat, soy is fat-free and instead fiber rich. Soy also contains all the amino acids that one gets from eating regular meat. Soy protein is for anyone looking to move out the fat and bring in lean healthy muscle.
  2. Reduces risk of Heart Disease: Imbalanced lipids are known to be one of the causative factors of coronary heart disease. Soy has been found to reduce the LDL component which is seen to be primarily responsible for coronary heart disease.
  3. Added Nutrition: Soy, when processed into tofu and Soy milk, is known to act as a probiotic. This helps in the better assimilation of the other foods. Besides soy is a great source for a number of essential amino acids which need to be replenished by in the body on a regular basis through food intake.
  4. Improve your Health overall: Soy protein is known to reduce the risk of cancers. Particularly the ones associated with the breast, colon, and prostate. Even the risk of osteoporosis is found to be low in those who regularly consume soy and its various products.

The next time you hear about soy, remember that our association with soy is ancient. And that this bean is probably the best thing that has happened to the agriculture across the world!

Disclaimer: The above article is sponsored by Thyrve, the world’s first Gut Health Program that incorporates microbiome testing and personalized probiotics to ensure a healthier gut, happier life, and a brighter future.