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What does 'whole' soy mean?

Asked by Fran, Alabama

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What is considered a "whole" soy product? I think this is edamame and tofu. But where do soy milk, soy yogurt and soy ice cream fit?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Fran -- This is a very good question, but the definition of "whole" foods in general can be tricky as many experts argue about the extent and type of processing a food can undergo while still being designated a whole food. Soybeans are a member of the legume family and are an excellent source of plant-based protein. They are also rich in vitamins, healthy fats, fiber and phytonutrients and low in saturated fat, making them a good alternative to animal proteins that can be higher in saturated fat.

Edamame (cooked soybeans) and soy nuts are probably the main types of whole soy products. Tofu is minimally processed and therefore retains much of the nutritional benefit of the soybean, although some packaged products may be higher in sodium. Soy milk is made by adding water to the beans, then grinding and heating them and filtering out the milk. While some of the fiber and nutrients may be lost in the filtering process, especially in packaged products available in countries outside Japan, soy milk is still a healthy option, especially if you are unable to tolerate dairy or are following a vegetarian diet. If you don't get much calcium, make sure to find calcium-fortified products and limit products with added sugar and artificial flavors. Soy yogurt, soy protein powders, soy ice cream, soy cheese and soy "meat" products are often more processed and therefore more likely to lose some of their nutritional benefit and to contain added sweeteners, flavors and sodium, making them less healthy than whole soy products.

In 1999, the FDA approved a soy protein health claim applying to products containing at least 6.25 grams of soy protein that were low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The claim allows such products to state that they may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels. While this claim has become somewhat controversial, most experts agree that replacing some of the animal protein in your diet with plant-based protein such as soy, beans or nuts, may help reduce your risk of heart disease, so my advice is to include healthier soy products in your diet if you enjoy them.

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