Various soy products, including Asian black beans, doubanjiang, shiro miso, and soy sauce -

March Feature – The Incredible, Variable Soy Bean

In Monthly feature by Sean19 Comments

Every month, Diversivore launches two new thematic features. This month’s pantry/recipe feature is all about the amazing pastes, sauces, and foods made from soybeans. Keep coming back for updates and recipes related to this theme, or subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on anything new.

Soy is one of the most important foods on the planet. This isn’t simply a matter of opinion; there are numbers (not to mention entire cuisines) to back that statement up. Soybeans are grown on a massive scale in countries all around the world, with Brazil and the USA leading the pack. Like corn, wheat, and rice, they’re traded internationally on commodities markets. In 2014, the combined world soybean output was 214 million metric tons; the US share of this alone was $38 billion. That’s billion, with a B. It’s clear that they’re economically important, but let’s not forget that they’re a food product, and one with a rather interesting nutritional profile at that. In their raw and unprepared state they’re toxic to humans, but once they’ve been cooked, they become an amazingly nutrient-dense super-food. In particular, they’re a very high source of protein, which made them indispensable for millenia in East Asia where red meat was rarely on the menu. But soy is also becoming one of the most controversial foods on Earth. Soybeans are definitely nutrient dense, but there has been some concern (bordering on hysteria if you’re to believe some rather dramatic internet sources) over some compounds found in soybeans and whether or not they have any connection to various human maladies. On the other hand, some soy components (sometimes even the same ones) have been touted for their cardioprotective and anti-cancer effects. But controversy doesn’t just surround what’s in the bean itself – simply producing soy has also become a touchy subject. Soy-based animal feeds have made large-scale environmentally impactful meat production possible at levels that would once have been utterly unimaginable. It’s also one of the most common GM crops on Earth. As of 2010, fully 93% of the soy grown in the USA (which produces over 1/3rd of the global soy output) was genetically modified, largely to facilitate the use of the herbicide Roundup.

So if soy is everywhere, not to mention increasingly contentious, why feature it? Well, there are two reasons really – first of all, I really enjoy examining a good controversy. But more importantly, soy has been one of the most important and imaginatively re-invented food products in Asia for literally thousands of years, and the variations that have been borne from this endless experimentation are amazingly useful, yet under-appreciated by many here in the West. In short, soy beans are the malleable, nutrient-rich building block for a vast array of staple ingredients, and these staples deserve to be used more often by cooks everywhere. Flavors ranging from mild tofu to spicy doubanjiang to the indispensible and variable soy sauces all await anyone wanting to explore the vast East Asian culinary scene.

At this point, I fear I might have left some readers feeling a little uneasy. Sure, soy is variable and delicious (I honestly can’t imagine what I’d do without soy sauces), but is it good for us? Is it good for the planet? I’m not going to simply toss out platitudes, but I will say this: understanding more about soy and the products made from it is essential if we want to make responsible decisions and enact changes that will benefit both ourselves and our planet. Organic and environmentally conscious soy products are becoming more common because consumers are paying attention and voicing their concerns. And, if I may put aside all of the controversy for a moment, increased global interest in Asian food coupled with a passion for quality and flavour have led to more and more products being made using traditional methods and more authentic ingredients. This is often translates into positive environmental changes, and it’s incredibly good news for home cooks, who can now find a wealth of incredible ingredients on store shelves. This month is all about helping you learn to navigate that delicious diversity.

So follow along as we explore soy products this month. I can promise some seriously delicious food, as well as some interesting food for thought. We’ll be looking at new Pantry Pages, as well as recipes from Korea, China, Japan and (hopefully!) more. I’ll be connecting this theme to Diversivore’s other March theme all about Chinese green vegetables.

If you’re looking to start exploring already, I whole-heartedly recommend trying this amazing Five-Spice Crispy Tofu with Seared Bok Choy, or this classic Mapo Tofu. You can also check out pretty much any Chinese or Japanese recipe on the site, as most will contain soy sauce or tamari.

Curious about a particular soy product? Have questions about a soy controversy? Let me know in the comments, or send an email to [email protected]


  1. Hi Sean, I’m really enjoying your articles. I look forward to receiving your blog updates. Particularly looking forward to your thoughts on soy and exploring all the different culinary uses of soy.

    1. Author

      Thanks Ginni! It’s an interesting topic to address because there’s a lot of good stuff to be said about soy and soy products, but it’s easy to get put off by the controversial aspects. I’m looking forward to working on this theme.

  2. That was such an interesting read! I was a good consumer of soy milk, but kind of slowed down few years ago after reading about the GM soy. I turned to almond milk, and now it’s happening the same. Would you start the “Carrageenan Controversy” for me, please? 🙂 . Thanks!

    1. Author

      I’m really glad you enjoyed in Nicoletta! I find these controversies fascinating, but at the same time a little frustrating. Quite often, the supposed ‘science’ behind them is very, very shaky. When it comes to GM soy, I think there are some really good reasons to discuss it and look at the problems in the system, but it’s being painted as “GM=bad” all the time, which is unfortunately reductionist and leads us to the wrong discussions over and over again. When you look at the world’s biggest food crops (soy, wheat, corn) they’re all embroiled in controversy, but a lot of this gets badly misrepresented or over-simplified. Sadly, when we oversimplify, it gives agriculture mega-corporations free license to dismiss public concerns. After all, an unscientific argument against something doesn’t really warrant a scientific response.

      I really love soy products, and I’m glad that consumers are paying attention to where their soy comes from and how it’s produced. It’s too easy to see the controversy and just dismiss yourself from the argument altogether, but when we do that, we stop contributing to a solution. As food bloggers, we have a unique chance to be a part of the discussion, which is amazing.

      I hadn’t heard about carageenan being controversial, but I will read up on it now!

  3. Hey Sean, This looks like a fun month with this as your second theme. With the UN’s international year of the pulse, it fits well with that and I must admit, I am very comfortable with soy and its many incarnations (tempeh, miso, etc). I’d love to see how you tackle tempeh because it can be hit-or-miss for some. Personally, I love it. 🙂

    1. Author

      I’m looking forward to this month, and I am glad I could work something into the UN declaration. Tempeh is high on my ‘to-do’ list – in fact, I’d love to spend more time with Indonesian food in general. It’s such a rich and under-appreciated culinary world.

  4. This is an interesting topic for a series of posts. For me, the most controversial discussion about any crop is monocultures and how much of it is used as filler or feed. There’s such a fine tension between keeping the world fed and keeping the earth in productive condition.

    1. Author

      I couldn’t agree more. There’s too much focus on the techniques and intricacies of food production (e.g. genetic modification) and not enough focus on application. GM or organic, monoculture farming is tricky at best and environmentally destructive at worst, but it’s tough to enact change on a broad level. Of course, education is the first step!

  5. Sean, this is such a good read, thank you for sharing this information with us. I am surprised that 93% of soy grown in the USA is genetically modified! There are lots of debates regarding whether soy is good or bad for us, but either way, I’ll still continue eating it because it’s DELICIOUS.

    1. Author

      You’re welcome Angela – I really feel I’ve only scratched the surface, but it’s a great topic to work with. I love soy products too (probably not surprising given how much East Asian cooking I do), but I’m a firm believer in educating yourself about controversy. That’s a tricky task though, especially given the number of doom-sayers and scientifically questionable resources on the web today.

  6. My problem with genetically modified food is that they’re not doing it to make food better for you. They’re doing it to make food better for business. When you get down to it, though, there is nothing you can put in your mouth that isn’t controversial to someone.

    1. Author

      Yeah, I think this is getting lost in the conversation a little too often. Take soy as an example – the most common GM soybean has been modified to make it possible to apply copious quantities of the herbicide Roundup. That makes might make it easier to grow soybeans, and it makes it a LOT easier to sell Roundup… but I don’t see how it’s dealing with our major agricultural issues. But you’re right – there’s a lot of controversial issues in the world of food – the key is approaching them without over-reacting or getting fatigued. Personally, the fatigue issue is much tougher for me, but it’s still worthwhile.

    1. Author

      Thanks Lily! Miso is probably the post I’m looking forward to the most – I actually started the research during my January Japanese Pantry theme, but it turns out the miso is WAY more complex than I had realized. I’m looking forward to finishing it off this month!

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