You may have seen the TV commercial where a man quips, “[For my headache,] I look at what my doctor takes when he has a headache.” You might say the same thing about soy. Although Stephen Barnes, Ph.D., and Mark Messina, Ph.D., leaders in investigating the powers of soy to fight a host of diseases, say that not many studies amidst the avalanche of data on the positive effects of eating soy foods are clinically conclusive, they, still, eat soy every single day.

In the past, Messina led the National Cancer Institute into probing the value of eating soy. Barnes, working at the University of Alabama’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, has authored more than 84 peer-reviewed articles related to soy.

They both target the isoflavones in soy as key to its benefits. These phytochemicals (plant substances) are “dietary components that are effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. In studies, it appears that isoflavones also inhibit bone breakdown and may stimulate bone formation,” explains Barnes. Furthermore, substances in isoflavones, including genistein, also seem to help menopausal women feel more comfortable.

“Isoflavones are the reason people are talking about soy,” says Messina, who wrote The Simple Soybean and Your Health.

Other studies using soy have uncovered other health benefits. Dr. Susan Potter, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, in her research involving women and isoflavone rich isolated soy protein, showed effects of soy on osteoporosis. Isoflavones, in supplement form, were used in a study on heart disease, the results of which were published in the December issue of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

Even as Messina studies isoflavone’s benefits, he and Barnes are sounding important warnings. “We know lots about whole soyfoods and their effects,” says Barnes. Indeed, Asians have eaten these foods for centuries. Finding a lower incidence of breast cancer among Japanese women Is one reason scientist began researching soy foods. “We should not forget that there are other phytochemicals [in them] that are cancer protective,” he says. But, he states warily, “Who knows what will happen over time from eating soy protein isolates or concentrate versus whole soyfoods.”

Messina’s concern is that “people who use soy supplements, or even soyfoods, will ignore the importance of also making overall dietary and lifestyle changes.” He worries that instead of eating the amounts of fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthful diet, cutting down on fat, and including exercise and stress reduction along with using soy, they will simply add it to their current, improper diet and lifestyle. To experience the greatest benefits from soy, it is important to make it one part of a balanced whole-foods diet.

For people with certain health conditions, taking supplemental concentrate or fractions of soy, along with eating soyfoods, may be the only way to consume enough of its helpful elements. However, at least for now as William Shurtleff, co-author of the Book of Tofu says. “soyfoods contain things that combined with the rest of what’s in a good diet, are useful. A good diet, low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, plus exercise, will change your life.”

Fortunately, eating one or more servings of soy every clay, as the experts say, keeps getting easier. Soyfoods are available in more stores and in greater variety. They also keep getting better tasting and better looking.

Soyfoods: the ‘Basic Four’

To eat soy daily, start with the four traditional forms, the way Asians have enjoyed it for centuries. I call these the Basic Four: tofu, soymilk, tempeh, and miso. Each is easy to eat as-is, or with just a little embellishment. Pour a cup of soymilk on your cereal, toss together a stir-fry that includes cubes of tofu, or have grilled, marinated tempeh on a burger bun for lunch and you have your daily port ion.

So, you may be saying, eating the same food every day can get boring; not so with soy, because soyfoods come in so many different forms anti they are so versatile. For example, let’s look at the Basic Four. Using them as ingredients, you can treat yourself to a fruit-full smoothie made with soymilk, have a slice of seriously decadent chocolate tofu pie, or dig into a bowl of beany, incendiary Five-Pepper Black Soybean Chili, enriched with meaty-tasting miso without thinking, “I am eating soy.”

To cook with traditional soyfoods, it helps to learn a few special techniques. For tofu, it is useful to know how to press it and to understand how and when to freeze and defrost it. (Freezing transforms the texture of tofu in a variety of ways.) A growing number of cookbooks, including mine, The Natural Kitchen.’ Soy!, include these techniques, as well as other soy skills, like how to “cream” miso so it dissolves into liquids. These soy cooking tips will enable you to prepare a seemingly infinite variety of dishes, including an exciting range of soups, salads, and desserts.

Going beyond the Basic Four, you will discover what are sometimes referred to as second-generation soyfoods, including soy cheeses and meat-like products which might be called the “soy dairy and deli” category. These high-tech, highly-processed foods are ideal for people who want to include soy in their diet, but do not like the taste or texture of traditional Asian soyfoods.

Thanks to the excellence of soy dairy products, you can make a beautifully creamy soup with the taste of cheddar cheese (see the Cheddar Soup with Rice recipe on this page). Or use soy cream cheese in a cheesecake so smooth and rich-tasting you may find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator at midnight devouring it. There are also appealing smoked and jalapeno-spiked soy cheeses, a respectable grated Parmesan, tangy yogurt, zesty sour cream, and a host of frozen desserts.

The meaty side of soy is more challenging. This category includes such foods as “not-dogs,” soy cold cuts, soy bacon, and “not-chicken” nuggets. And for vegetarians who still long for spicy sausage, there is a soy-based chorizo which is good used like pepperoni on pizza or to add flavor to casseroles, stews, and scrambles. Best of all, though, soy-based burgers keep getting better tasting and leaner. Some, which look grilled, taste and chew remarkably like meat.

Besides all these possibilities, add to your shopping cart snack chips made with soy, the new coffee-based soy drinks, tofu-filled ravioli, and a frozen meatless meatball dinner and there is no excuse for a day without soy. A stroll through the food section of your local health food store is sure to introduce to you a wide variety of these soy-based frozen entrees, soups, and meal-starters along with the dairy-like and meat-like foods.

Ultimately, whatever disease-fighting benefits can be clinically proven about soy, eating soy foods will always be desirable because they provide the highest quality meatless protein. Some soy foods also are good sources of dietary fiber or of calcium. They are all valuable whether you are vegetarian or eat meatless meals only a few times a week.

With so many recipes around for using tofu and soymilk, here are dishes to expand the repertoire of soyfoods you will enjoy.

Cheddar Soup with Rice

The combined richness of soymilk and soy cheese make this a golden, cholesterol-free dish creamy enough to surprise even cheese-lovers. Smoked soy cheese or one flavored with jalapenos can replace the cheddar for appealing variations.

  • 1/2 cup brown basmati rice
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted organic butter
  • 2 Tbsp unbleached flour
  • 1 1/2 cups rich vegetable stock or canned broth
  • 1/2 cup regular soymilk, plain flavor
  • 4 1/2 oz cheddar-style soy cheese, cut in
  • 1/2-inch cubes (See note)
  • 4 tsp snipped chives

Cook the rice in 2 cups water until it is very soft, 30 minutes. Set aside.

In a heavy, medium saucepan, melt the butter. Mix in the flour and cook 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring. Do not let the flour color. Add the vegetable stock or broth, and the soymilk. Cook until the mixture is thick enough to coat a wooden spoon.

Mix in the soy cheese, stirring until it melts. Take care not to let the soup boil. When the cheese is melted, divide the soup among 4 soup bowls. Garnish with the chives and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Soy cheeses that melt well are not vegan: they contain casein, a milk protein.

Gingerbread Loaf

Soy flour, an excellent source of isoflavones, makes this spicy cake a healthy treat. Serve it warm, with this creamy orange topping (see recipe below), or with sliced peaches sauteed in a bit of maple syrup. Because it freezes well, use one loaf and store the other.

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup soy flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cocoa
  • 1/2 tsp ground clove
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup molasses
  • 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsalted organic butter
  • 1 cup boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350 [degrees] F. Grease two 9″x5″ loaf pans and flour them. Line the pans with parchment or wax paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, soy flour, baking soda and baking powder, the ginger, cinnamon, cocoa, cloves, and pepper. Mix in the eggs, molasses, and sugar, then the butter. Blend in the boiling water. Pour the batter into the two pans.

Bake the ginger bread until a knife inserted in the center of a loaf comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Turn the loaves out onto a baking rack and remove the baking parchment. When lukewarm, slice one loaf and serve. Freeze or store the other loaf. Makes 2 loaves.

Orange Cream Tofu Topping

  • 8 oz soft silken tofu
  • 2 Tbsp orange juice concentrate
  • 1 tsp Grand Marnier
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice

In a blender, puree the tofu with all the other ingredients. Chill 1 hour or store up to 2 days. Stir well before serving. Makes about 1 cup.

Five-Pepper Black Soybean Chili

Chipotle and other chile peppers give this meatless chili a real kick. Dried black soybeans cook in a couple of hours, or you can buy them canned and ready to use. Serve over brown rice or roll the chili in warm tortillas, garnished with chopped onion and cilantro.

  • 2 Tbsp corn or peanut oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 small green pepper, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 Tbsp ancho or New Mexico chile powder
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
  • 2 cups cooked black soy beans, or 15-ounce can
  • 2 canned chipotle chilies in adobo
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 Tbsp brown rice miso

Heat the oil in a medium Dutch oven. Saute the onion, green pepper, and garlic until the onions are soft.

Mix in the cumin, oregano, and cinnamon until they smell toasty. Add the chili powder, paprika, and cayenne. Pour in the tomatoes, plus 1 1/2 cups water. Mix in the beans and chopped chilis. Add the bay leaf and simmer 30 minutes.

Remove the chili from the heat. Mix the miso in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of water, then add this to the chili. Makes 8 servings.

Tropical Fruit Smoothie 

  • 1/2 cup fresh pineapple chunks
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1/4 tsp. coconut extract
  • 2 cups vanilla soymilk
  • 4 – 6 ice cubes
  • Pineapple wedge and toasted coconut for garnish

Blend all ingredients together in a blender until thick and smooth. Garnish with toasted coconut and pineapple wedge.

Makes 2 servings.