A high-protein food source for livestock and humans, soya beans have transcended their Asian origins to become the world’s most widely grown legumes – just make sure you cook them first
Glycine max, aka the soya bean – or soybean, as they say in the US – grows in pods of edible seeds, usually green but they can also be yellow, brown or black. In pod form, they are known as edamame beans and are related to peas, clover and alfalfa.
More than a third of the world’s soya beans (35%) are grown in America, in 30 states, by more than 300,000 soya bean farmers. Other key crop sources include Brazil, Argentina, China, Paraguay, India and Canada.
Raw soya beans, including the immature green form, are poisonous to humans. Before eating they need to be boiled to destroy toxins that can interfere with protein digestion and lead to digestive diseases.
Range of uses
Lecithin, extracted from soya bean oil, is used for everything from pharmaceuticals to protective coatings. As a natural emulsifier and lubricant, it is used to keep the chocolate and cocoa butter in confectionery from separating.
Jack of all trades
In addition to being a high-protein food source, soya beans in one form or another are also used in printing ink, plastics, wood adhesives, cleaning products, haircare products and textiles.
The soya bean plant is native to China, where it has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. The ancient Chinese considered it a necessity for life.
The new dairy
In the early 20th century, soya beans began to be used in the West for more than animal feed, and since the 1970s there has been a marked increase in the consumption of traditional soya foods, such as soya milk, sausages, cheese and yoghurt, simulating meat and dairy products.
After removal of the soya bean oil, the flakes can be processed into various edible protein products, or used to produce soya bean meal for animal feeds. About 98% of global soya bean meal is used as animal feed.
What They Say
“A 2010 analysis of more than 30 reports found no evidence that soy messed with male hormone levels.”
Alex Caspero, in Women’s Health Magazine
“Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agri-business and US Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king... during this period the cycle of planetary destruction began.”
Mark Bittman, food journalist
“Soybeans provide a plant-based protein source; a slew of vitamins and minerals crucial for reducing risk of chronic disease; and fibre that helps you fill up and feel satisfied.”
Jaclyn London, Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute
Soya bean prices are predicted to continue to rise as weather conditions exacerbated by climate change cause disruption to planting. Soya bean prices can fluctuate due to crop size and weather: for example, recent rain caused planting delays for some US farmers. But frosty US-Chinese trade relations may also affect the commodity. According to the US Department of Agriculture, China purchased an estimated 1.13m tonnes of soya beans from the US in December 2018 during a temporary lull in hostilities, but President Trump heightened tensions again earlier this year by increasing tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. Bloomberg reported in May that China hadn’t yet taken delivery of around 7m tonnes of US soya beans that it said it would buy. As the world waits to see how a full-blown trade war will affect the global economy, demand for soya continues to grow.