Soy foods like tofu and tempeh are popular plant-based protein alternatives

Sabine Meuter

DPA – It is difficult to imagine Asian food without soy, and now, products like soy sauce, tofu and tempeh are winning fans far and wide – and not only among vegetarians and vegans.

Soy beans contain up to 40 per cent protein, although it is harder to digest than animal protein, Munich-based doctor and nutritionist Dr Kathrin Hausleiter said.

Nonetheless, she said, soy products can be a great alternative to meat. “For people who can’t tolerate milk, soy is often a good choice,”she said.

Soy beans are full of fibre and low in cholesterol. They have plenty of unsaturated fatty acids, and also contain magnesium, iron and vitamin B.

The beans are processed and packaged in many different ways.

Tofu is Chinese in origin and translates roughly as “curdled bean”.

Tofu and avocado make the basis of a delicious vegetarian bowl. PHOTOS: DPA
Natural tofu does not taste of much and will need some spicing up before you add it to your dish

It is a firm curd made out of soy milk and tastes pretty neutral, so it can be used in recipes both savoury and sweet.

“You can fry it, bread it, smoke it and marinate it – all those are possible options,” said Lina Cuypers, who works for Taifun-Tofu, a food producer based in the southern German city of Freiburg.

Tofu tastes best with the addition of spices and other ingredients ranging from basil to turmeric, paprika and ginger.

Tempeh, a fermented soy product with a slightly nutty, mushroom-like taste, can be bought in a block form or sliced.

You can bake it, fry it or grill it, and it gains a particular taste if you marinate it in fresh herbs.

Miso is another increasingly popular soy product outside of Japan, where it is the main ingredient in miso soup, though there is much more you can do with it.

There is also soy cream and soy oil, as well as the popular bean sprouts in salads.

These products may be tasty, but you do not want to go overboard eating soy products though, said experts. “There are some indications that excessive consumption of soy can affect thyroid function,” said Dr Hausleiter.

That is because of isoflavones, a naturally occurring compound in soy that resembles oestrogen. “You should avoid isoflavone additives as food supplements, in the form of powder of pills,” said Susanne Umbach, who specialises in consumer health advice in Germany.

They are said to help women with menopausal symptoms, but so far, there is no scientific evidence of this.

If you are considering taking such nutritional products, check with a doctor first.

The European Food Safety Authority recommends taking products with soy isoflavones for no longer than 10 months at a time.

Scientists differ on whether isoflavones can protect women from breast cancer or actually increase the risk. “There really isn’t much in the way of studies on this,” said Dr Hausleiter.

Those suffering from gout should also go easy on soy products as some could contain too much purine.

However, healthy adults need have no worries about eating moderate amounts of soy, said Umbach, as so far, the evidence suggests it has a beneficial health effect.

Over 80 per cent of soy is made from genetically modified beans, she added. Shoppers can buy organically certified products if they do not wish to consume genetically engineered beans.