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Edamame Hummus is a delicious, nutritious soy food. (NDSU Photo)

Soy foods and health: What to know

Some things touch our lives in more ways than we might imagine. Soy-based products are all around us.

If you read a newspaper this morning, it may have been printed with soy ink. You may have had cereal with added soy protein or topped your cereal with soy milk. If you had eggs, chances are the chickens responsible for your eggs ate soy-based feed.

You may be driving a vehicle fueled with soy-based fuel. For lunch, a stop at a Chinese restaurant could include soy sauce, miso (fermented soy) or hot and sour soup with tofu (high-protein soy curd).

Perhaps someone in your home is vegetarian or flexitarian so you grilled a soy-based burger for a high-protein entrée. You could have a salad topped with salad dressing made from vegetable oil, which is primarily soybean oil.

You may know kids going back to school with crayons made in part from soy. Or, at the end of the day, you might relax with the flicker of a candle made from soy and snack on some crunchy, savory soy nuts.

Recently, I participated in a session in Maryland that brought us participants from field to table to learn about soy foods. We interacted with farmers, food processors and chefs and learned that soy helps "fix" nitrogen in the soil to improve its fertility.

We tasted a variety of foods made with soy, including some tasty edamame appetizers, soups, sauces and other foods with added soy.

I don't often take photos of my food in restaurants, but the artistic plates of food were ready for their photo op.

My role was to answer questions about nutrition and to help explain some of the research and clear up some myths surrounding soy foods.

Soy is unique in the world of plant proteins, and it has been used for thousands of years in the human diet. It contains all the essential protein building blocks, or amino acids. In other words, soybeans do not have to be paired with rice or another grain to make them complete.

Like any plant foods, soy contains no cholesterol. Soy foods also are rich in several nutrients, especially protein and fiber. Protein is essential in building and repairing tissue in the body. Soybeans contain soluble and insoluble fiber. In addition to an overall healthful diet, diets high in soluble fiber may help reduce cholesterol, and diets high in insoluble fiber help with regularity.

Soy provides essential fatty acids, which are the kind we cannot produce in our body. Soy also is rich in B vitamins, which are necessary for producing energy from the foods we eat. Soy provides phosphorus and iron. Phosphorous is necessary for cellular growth and production. Iron is crucial for the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin.

In fact, soy foods that meet guidelines for protein content and other nutrients have carried a heart health claim for the past 20 years.

Soy foods carry an allergen statement because some people cannot consume soy products without having allergic reactions. Besides soy, the "big eight" list of allergens also includes milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and wheat. Fortunately, a fairly small number of people have allergies, but be sure to heed to warnings.

Sometimes, however, other kinds of "warnings" about various foods appear on social media and other sources. These messages pop onto the advertisements on my Facebook page from time to time.

I think we all know that we can't believe everything we see and hear about foods. For example, while it's true that soy contains phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), these natural chemicals do not act like human estrogen hormones. They are not to blame for feminizing men, for example.

Researchers conducting human studies have reported that the natural plant compounds in soy may reduce the risk for prostate and breast cancer, and may reduce hot flashes in menopausal women or perhaps improve fertility.

My best advice is to aim for variety in your diet. Don't be afraid of food. Be aware of research-based recommendations in nutrition and health from credible sources.

Have you ever tried edamame? These immature soybeans are available in the freezer section of many grocery stores. Here is a recipe that we tried at North Dakota State University, which was well liked.

Edamame Hummus

1 1/2 cups frozen shelled edamame

1/4 cup tahini

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

1 lemon, juiced

1 clove garlic, smashed

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon coriander

3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Tahini is sesame seed paste that is available in many grocery stores. You might find it with condiments or in the ethnic foods section. Sometimes tahini is found in the refrigerated section with deli items.

Boil the edamame in salted water for 4 to 5 minutes or microwave, covered, for 2 to 3 minutes. In a food processor, puree the edamame, tahini, water, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt, cumin and coriander until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and mix until absorbed. Transfer to a small bowl, stir in the parsley and drizzle with remaining oil. Serve with vegetables or crackers. Refrigerate leftovers.

Makes 10 servings. Each serving has 100 calories, 8 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams protein, 2 grams fiber and 150 milligrams sodium.

Garden-Robinson is a food and nutrition specialist for the NDSU Extension Service.