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Soybeans: A Comprehensive Guide to “The King of Beans”

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  January 10, 2023

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You can find soybeans in many dishes, partly because they are healthy and make for a great meat substitute.

Native to east Asia, the soybean is an edible bean belonging to the legumes family. It’s been a major crop and ingredient in east Asian countries for thousands of years. Its ability to grow in various climates made it one of the most widely produced crops in the world.

In this article, I’ll get into all that and more, from their very origin to their effect on your health and anything in between.

Soybeans- A Comprehensive Guide to “The King of Beans”

Apart from being a healthy ingredient and consumable, soybeans are also used to make many other useful products, both edible and non-edible.

Edible products obtained from soybeans include beverages, toppings, fortified pasta, and animal feed.

Nonedible uses of soybean include its role as a major substance in paints, cleaners, and plastic manufacturing and its use as a common Biodiesel.

In fact, soybean accounts for the production of 25% of the total biodiesel used in the US.

Soybean oil also accounts for 68% of the total oil used for cooking purposes. It is commonly used for frying, baking, dressing, and making spreads, including our most beloved margarine. 

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What are soybeans?

Also known as soya bean, soybean is an edible bean obtained from a species of legumes known as Glycine max.

It has been a staple ingredient of many Asian cuisines (mainly Chinese and Japanese) for thousands of years and a popular food among vegan individuals.

Its popularity among Asians can also be credited to its high protein content, given that most Asians followed a vegan diet for most of their history, and it remained their only pure vegan protein source. 

Soybean is often called vegan meat when converted to soya chunks.

Soya chunk is a product prepared from the residue of soybean left after oil extraction…more about that later! 

Consumption of soybean in specific, and soy foods in general, is also related to numerous health benefits.

Those include reduced risk of developing heart diseases by promoting healthy cholesterol and reducing bad cholesterol or LDL.

Additionally, eating soybean is also associated with the promotion of phytoestrogen.

This hormone-like substance mimics estrogen’s function and helps treat many symptoms related to menopause, including hot flashes.

You will usually find two soybean varieties in the market: immature and mature.

The immature one is called edamame. It has a very crisp and firm texture that is retained even after cooking. It has a lush green color and is often sold frozen in almost every superstore.

On the other hand, the mature soybean doesn’t have any special name. It is light brown, and you can buy it both in and out of the pod.

Compared to edamame, it weighs less and has a smaller size. Moreover, you cannot cook it directly. The beans should be soaked first.

What do soybeans taste like?

Soybeans have a distant sweet taste, with strong hints of beany flavor characteristic to every species belonging to the legume family.

However, it is important to note that this “beany” flavor is most conspicuous in mature beans, compared to edamame, which has more of a buttery taste with a sweet undertone.

The enzyme responsible for this beany flavor in soybeans is called lipoxygenase.

This enzyme is involved in the oxygenation of lipids and their conversion to fat, and it has three different variants, lipoxygenase 1, 2, and 3.

For soybean to not have the beany flavor, it should not have either of three. However, that’s not naturally possible.

Thanks to science, we have now successfully identified the genes that control the production of these enzymes.

Through hybridization, mutation, and selection, we now have cultivars that lack all three enzymes and don’t have the beany flavor, whether immature or mature.

Still, this cultivar isn’t as common and is used on an industrial scale mostly to produce products like soy milk, etc.

Plus, it costs a little more than the standard varieties available in your local superstore, even if you find it.

You can also use immature soybeans if you don’t like the beany flavor. They are sweet for the most part and are way less “beany” in flavor, which you can remove through cooking. 

However, for mature beans, this isn’t entirely true. They will retain that subtle beany taste even after soaking and cooking.

Though not as strong as the raw beans, they surely have some hints. 

How to cook soybeans?

Soybeans can be cooked in many ways, depending on whether you use edamame or dry soybeans. Let’s have a look at both!

How to cook edamame

Fresh soybeans or edamame are relatively easier to cook and take only a few minutes before you can serve them.

You can boil, steam, microwave, or sear edamame beans in your pan with your favorite spices. It’s going to taste delicious anyway! 

Here’s a detailed breakdown of all the ways you can cook edamame:

Boiling

This is the most basic way of cooking edamame. Just fill a pot with enough water, add some salt, and bring the water to a boil. 

Add the in-shell edamame to boiling water and cook it for about 5 minutes or until the beans inside the pods become tender.

Drain the hot water, rinse the edamame with cold water, season, and serve. You can either serve the beans with pods or without pods. 

Most people like to eat it without pods because of its super chewy texture and related health issues.

Rather use something else in your dish? Here are the best substitutes for edamame you can try

Steaming

Steaming is another good way to cook edamame. Just add about an inch of water into a pot and bring it to a boil.

Add your edamame to a colander or bamboo steaming, put it in the pot, and cover it.

After steaming for about 5-10 mins, remove the insert from the pot, put the edamame on a plate, and season it with your favorite spices before serving.

You can also rinse it with cold water, but hot, steamed edamame tastes and feels better.

Microwaving

Microwaving is a quicker and easier way to cook edamame. Just pick up a microwave-safe bowl, put the fresh edamame in it, and splash the beans with water.

You can do this by wetting your hands and flicking your fingers over the bowl to splatter the water over the pods.

After that, cover the bowl with a paper towel and microwave the pods in 1-minute increments. It should take no more than 3 minutes for them to cook perfectly.

Once cooked, wait for the pods to cool down, season them with your favorite spices, and serve.

Pan-searing

Though not the most common method of cooking edamame, you can also pan-sear it. To sear edamame, place a cast iron pan on your stove and heat it over high heat.

To see whether the pan is heated enough, sprinkle a few drops of water on the pan’s surface and see if the water sizzles immediately.

If it does, reduce the heat to medium, add the edamame to the pan, and cook it undisturbed. After a minute or two, see if the pods are charred a little.

If yes, flip the pods and char the other side. You can also shake the pan a little during cooking to ensure that each pod cooks evenly.

Once you obtain the same results on the other side of the pods, the beans inside should be tender enough.

Hence, remove the pods from the pan, season them with your favorite spices, and serve them immediately.

How to cook dry soybeans

Unlike edamame, dry soybeans take longer to cook and taste slightly different. They have that “beany” taste a little more conspicuous than the fresh variety. 

Though it milds down significantly after soaking and boiling, you will still taste hints of it when you taste one, as we have mentioned previously.

That said, let’s see what ways you can cook mature soybeans:

On stovetop

Cooking dry soybeans on the stovetop is time-consuming and requires extra effort beforehand.

To explain more, you will need to soak the dry beans overnight to prepare them for cooking.

After soaking, give the beans a quick rinse and set them aside in a separate bowl. 

Now, fill the pot with water with a ratio of 1:3 cups to beans. Wait for the water to simmer; meanwhile, look for any discolored beans you might find and remove them.

Now put the beans in the pot, cover them, and let them boil for over 3-4 hours.

The cooked soybeans should be soft and double the size of uncooked, dry soybeans.

In pressure cooker

Cooking soybeans in a pressure cooker is relatively more straightforward and less time-consuming.

Just as cooking with a stovetop, soak the soybeans beforehand for at least four hours, and put them in your pressure cooker with an appropriate amount of water.

Cover the cooker and let the beans boil for 10-15 minutes. The beans should be perfectly cooked in the specified time.

Add at least two tablespoons of oil to the water to ensure that the pressure cooker vent pipes are not clogged with all the foam produced during boiling.

A word of caution, allow the pressure cooker to release the pressure before opening it. Any negligence can result in a fatal accident.

In slow cooker

Cooking soybeans in a slow cooker is another great way to cook soybeans. The method is entirely similar to cooking soybeans on a simple stovetop in a pot.

The only obvious difference is the use of a slow cooker and the extra hours.

It takes around 7-8 hours for the beans to cook in a slow cooker after being soaked for up to 4 hours.

How to eat soybeans

Being a very versatile food, you can add soybeans and edamame to your diet in many different and delicious ways.

Here are some suggestions on how you can eat this protein-filled goody, followed by some succulent recipes you can try out to enhance your eating experience:

As a snack

Edamame is served in sushi and izakaya restaurants as an appetizer and is one of the most popular snacks in Japanese cuisine. 

It is also known as “otsumami,” which is derived from the word “tsumamu,” meaning “to grab,” or something you eat with your hands or chopsticks. 

The beans are often boiled or steamed within the pods and topped with sea salt. You can then scrap them out of the pod, traditionally with teeth.

As a fried rice ingredient

You can add edamame to fried rice or any of your mixed vegetable dishes to add more texture and flavor.

However, it’s essential to steam or boil the beans first and then shell them. 

Afterward, add them to your favorite stir-fries, veggie burgers, salads, and whatever else you like. You can also use mature soybeans for these recipes.

In purees

If you like to be a little creative with your ingredients, you can also mash boiled mature beans into your favorite purees and even icecreams.

The subtle flavor of the soybean just fits in everything, making it highly versatile, delicious, and nutritious.

As a condiment

Besides soy milk, there are many other products where the main ingredient is soy.

Here are the most popular ones:

  • Miso paste
  • Soy sauce
  • Natto
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh

Origin and history of soybeans

Unlike other common Asian ingredients, the history and origin of soybean are pretty ambiguous and a subject of debate among historians and botanists to this date.

Some botanists speculate that its cultivation started somewhere in 7000 BCE in ancient China, from where it went to Japan and Korea and became their primary agricultural product.

Others say that it was domesticated in China in 3500 BCE… the possibilities are unlimited due to the absence of solid archeological evidence. 

The only exception is the beans found in Korea, which were identified to be grown before 1000 BC.

But that, too, only proves that it was transferred to Korea in the earlier era and has nothing to do with the true origin of the crop.

Over the years, it grew as a major culinary and medicinal ingredient in Asia.

And it would continue to be one of their biggest exports and agricultural products in the upcoming thousands of years, only next to rice and wheat. 

The word “soybean” first appeared in American literature in 1804. The Europeans, especially France, took a keen interest in the product.

They brought it to attention worldwide in 1908, when soybean became one of the biggest imports of Europe.

The new crop became quite popular in the US after the devastating effects of World War II.

During those times, the trade routes of the US were interrupted, and the demand for edible oil spiked. 

To tackle the situation, soybean oil was used as an alternative, and due to its popularity among the common folk, the production of the crop only increased with time.

So much so that by the 1950s to 70s, the US produced about 75% of the total soybean crop worldwide. 

As for places like Argentina, Brazil, and other south American countries, soybean growth increased in the 1970s due to the worldwide shortage of feed protein.

As of now, US and Brazil, when combined, account for about 69% of the global soybean production.

Long story short, the soybean originated in China and is now grown on every continent, from Asia to Europe and any place between and beyond.

That’s one of the reasons why soybean is called “the king of beans.”

What are the main differences between edamame and soybeans?

By now, you must already know the main difference between soybean and edamame, e.g., one is mature while the other isn’t.

However, this main difference branches out into a couple of other differences, at the core of which edamame and soybean become two almost completely separate things.

In simple words, all edamame are soybean, but all soybean isn’t edamame.

To explain this further, let’s dive a little deep, beginning with the main difference between both:

Main differences

The word soybean is generally used for mature and immature soybean nuts (edamame). However, to give it context, we will call “soybean” only to mature beans.

It is THE most popular bean in the world and is produced at a large scale in every region, with America at the top.

Soybean is not only used as food but also as a primary source for other edible and non-edible products.

On the other hand, edamame is a Japanese word that is only used for immature soybean.

Unlike mature soybean, edamame is highly popular in Asian and Japanese cuisines and is only used as an edible product. 

Although it has become quite popular in America and European countries in the past few years, its use remains limited to the kitchens of Japanese food lovers, generally as a Japanese snack.

In terms of preparation and consumption

Edamame is consumed either with or without the pods depending on the likes or dislikes of a person. 

All you need to do is steam or boil it, season it with your favorite spices, and eat. The edamame beans have a soft, creamy texture and subtle sweetness.

Mature soybean has more of a nutty flavor and needs to be soaked and boiled for an extensive amount of time before it is ready to eat. You can also bake it if you like.

In terms of color

Edamame has a lush green color that most commonly resembles a pea. When edamame beans are super-fresh, you can also consume them raw.

Mature soybean has a yellow, black, or brown color, with a hint of nuttiness that goes well with the beans’ overall flavor profile and crunchy texture.

In terms of nutrition

Edamame is a low-carb food and has only 9 grams of fat per 100 grams, while soybean is a high-carb food containing about 19.9g of fat per 100g.

However, it is also worth mentioning that soy nuts are also rich in other macronutrients essential for the body to function.

In other words, soy nuts are way more nutritious than edamame when compared to the same amounts. 

In terms of price

Edamame is grown in quite limited amounts and is much more expensive than soybean nuts or mature soybean.

In terms of storage

You can store soybean nuts at room temperature without a problem since they have the least water content and won’t spoil.

However, since edamame is just like a fresh vegetable with high moisture content, you would like to keep it in the fridge for short-term storage and in the freezer for long-term storage.

What is the difference between soybeans and soya chunks?

Soybean, as mentioned, is a member of the legume family and is grown and eaten around the world for its nutritious value and high protein.

On the other hand, soya chunks are just one of the numerous food products obtained from soybean, or more specifically, soy flour.

Soy bean flour is a great high-protien substitute for coconout flour in your cooking!

When soy flour is defatted, it has a byproduct left that has a very dry and rough texture. As soon as you submerge it into the water, it becomes soft and spongy.

This soft and spongy product is made into balls or chunks, which we call soya chunks.

These chunks have a chewy, meat-like texture and high protein content when cooked. This is also the reason why soya chunks are called vegan meat.

Soya chunks are rich in calcium and isoflavones, which are both necessary for strengthening the bones.

Plus, they have a high dietary fiber, with low unsaturated fats. This makes them super easy to digest and highly beneficial for heart health.

When stored in proper conditions, you can eat them for a year without any problems.

Soybean is quite a versatile ingredient. Not only does it do great in original recipes, but also perfectly replaces meat in many proteinaceous dishes.

Following are some great recipes (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) you need to try out if you have some soya beans lying around in your kitchen:

Soya Kebabs

Ever tried kebabs that don’t have any meat? It’s time you do! Soya kebabs replace meat with soya granules.

It has the same great texture and spicy flavor of meat kebabs but with a twist that is bound to please your tastebuds.

Use soybean to make your kushiyaki skewers and wow your vegan friends!

Soya Seekh

A fine, vegan variant of traditional seekh kebabs, soya seekh is prepared with soya chunks, mashed potato, and many spices.

Though it won’t have that specific “meaty” flavor, rest assured, it tastes unique.

Soya haleem

Soya Haleem is a vegetarian take on haleem, a staple dish in Muslim traditions that is popularly eaten during Ramadan in South Asian and middle eastern countries.

This vegetarian makeover of haleem is made with soy granules.

Soya Florentine

Soya Florentine is another vegetarian variant that replaces the non-veg ingredients of the western staple with soya chunks.

The goodness of soya, combined with the inherent cheesy goodness of florentine, is something you don’t want to miss!

Soya Bolognese

Also called soyognese, this classic Italian pasta sauce variant is made with soy granules. Though the taste and texture might seem slightly different, it’s still fantastic.

Soya Stir Fry

When it comes to meals, nothing is as versatile and tasty as a stir fry. The recipe uses soya chunks and spices, with the optimum oil to cook it.

This a simple, speedy, and delicious vegan recipe with good protein.

Are soybeans healthy?

As mentioned quite often in the article, soybean is not just an incredibly versatile food ingredient but a powerhouse packed with many health benefits.

Making soybeans and other soya products a part of your diet could do wonders for you.

To understand this, let’s dive a bit deep and find out about the nutritional profile of soybean and what it means to your health.

Overall nutritional profile of soybeans

Per 100 grams of soybean contains:

  • Calories: 172
  • Fiber: 6 grams
  • Protein: 18.2 grams
  • Carbs: 8.4 grams
  • Sugar: 3 grams
  • Water: 63%
  • Fat: 9 grams
  • Saturated: 1.3 grams
  • Monounsaturated: 1.98 grams
  • Polyunsaturated: 5.06 grams

Essential vitamins and minerals found in soybeans

Besides being a rich source of protein and healthy fat, boiled soybean also contains many essential vitamins and minerals required for the body.

The following are some of them:

  • Molybdenum: required for processing proteins and DNA.
  • Folate: Also involved in protein metabolism and DNA/RNA formation.
  • Manganese: Helps the body form connective tissues, absorb blood, and regulate blood sugar levels. It’s also involved in producing sex hormones.
  • Magnesium: Improves quality of sleep.
  • Iron: Helps oxygen flow throughout the body and the production of RBCs.
  • Copper: Helps keep the nervous system healthy and the metabolism of red blood cells.
  • Thiamine: Helps the body change carbohydrates into energy.
  • Phosphorus: Helps in the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells and tissues, while also being an important part of DNA/RNA.
  • Vitamin K1: Helps form various proteins required for blood clotting and building bones.

General health benefits of soybeans

Now that you know the overall nutritional profile of soybeans, let’s dive a little deeper into the topic and see the combined effects of these elements on your body:

Reduction of cancer risk

According to a study conducted by WHO in 2020, it was reported that around 10 million people die of cancer annually, accounting for one in every six deaths.

To ensure you and your family are safe, following a diet that helps your body resist diseases like cancer is essential. And it cannot be complete without ample soybean.

Soybean has a good amount of isoflavone, associated with resisting breast cancer in women and reducing the chances of prostate cancer in men.

Though there’s no significant research conducted on the topic, there’s no harm in eating healthy food.

Alleviation of menopause symptoms

Menopause is often associated with unpleasant experiences, such as sweating, hot flashes, and mood swings.

This is due to the sudden fluctuation in hormone levels, specifically estrogen.

Quite interestingly, western women are more susceptible to these issues than Asian women, and the reason for that is the prevalent use of soy products in Asia.

Since the isoflavones found in soybean are associated with easing these symptoms, eating soybean might make you less susceptible to the aforementioned symptoms.

Help in insomnia

Soybean contains a high amount of magnesium, along with other valuable nutrients. Magnesium has two primary functions.

First, it regulates neurotransmitters in the body, ensuring an efficient flow of signals between the nervous system and the brain.

Second, it binds with Gama amino-butyric acid, which has the primary role of quieting down the whole body and calming the signal activity of the nervous system.

So if you can’t sleep properly, a big reason for that could be magnesium deficiency in your body, apart from other health conditions.

Taking soybean regularly ensures your body has all the magnesium it needs to stay calm and quiet when you go to bed, resulting in a peaceful and fulfilling sleep.

Help in diabetes management

Soybean is also associated with increasing insulin receptors within the human body.

It not only helps you deal with the symptoms of diabetes but enables you to avoid it in the first place.

Moreover, soybean also contains relatively fewer carbohydrates.

Combine that with the glucose-controlling properties of isoflavones, and there you have; a nutritious food that will be your sidekick in fighting and preventing diabetes.

Help in Improving blood flow in the body

As per the nutritional profile of soybean, it is extremely rich in two major body nutrients, copper and iron.

These are two vital nutrients essential for producing RBCs, which carry oxygen throughout the body and give the blood its red color.

With the appropriate amount of these nutrients, your body will efficiently produce red blood cells, ensuring proper blood supply to each organ.

As a result, your body will perform proper metabolic activities, and you won’t feel weak or tired that easily.

Proper blood flow is vital for proper brain functioning.

With low RBCs or low blood supply, your brain could lose its normal functioning, resulting in a constant state of confusion and poor decision-making ability.

Help in improving heart health

Soybean contains a decent amount of Omega-3 fatty acid, a polyunsaturated acid (having many double bonds/ unsaturated spots), which play a vital role in the reduction of LDL, or bad cholesterol in the body.

As a result, you remain safe from many fatal, heart-related issues, including coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with improving brain and eye health.

Long story short, taking the optimum amount of soybean can save you from developing many, if not all, fatal heart-related diseases.

Help in promoting healthy digestion

Foods with high fiber content move quickly through the intestines, while those with low fiber content don’t. Soybean is among the former foods.

It bulks up any still moving through your intestine, making it exit smoothly and quickly out of your digestive system.

As a result, you are less susceptible to many digestive issues, starting with constipation, which is the root cause of every other disease.

Besides, soybean is a good oligosaccharide source, a prebiotic necessary for gut bacteria growth.

Help in strengthening bones

The high amount of calcium in soybean, combined with other vital nutrients like zinc, magnesium, selenium, and copper, helps keep your bones stronger.

Some of the most common effects of these elements on bones include improved osteotropic activity. As a result, your normal bones are strengthened with time.

Moreover, If any bone-snapping unfortunate event occurs, having soybean as a part of your diet will significantly improve the recovery time. 

In any case, soybean is the real winner!

Are there any side effects of soybeans?

With all the health benefits of soybean and a low chance of catching any potential side effects, it’s easy to ignore the harm it could do to your body… when you shouldn’t.

The side effects of soybean can even be fatal for some individuals.

With that in account, let’s have a look at the adverse effects of soybean and in which conditions you would need to limit your soybean consumption:

Thyroid gland suppression

The thyroid is one of the largest glands in the human body, and the hormones (Triiodothyronine, Thyroxine, and calcitonin) produced by it controls the calcium levels, metabolism, growth, mood, and temperature of the body.

It is indispensable for the thyroid gland to function normally for a well-functioning and well-proportioned body.

Now the interesting thing is that isoflavone found in soybeans is associated with reducing cancer risks, glucose control, and alleviating menopausal symptoms.

A high amount of it, however, can suppress thyroid gland function and lessen the production of thyroid hormones.

As a result, you can get into many thyroid gland problems, leading to mild symptoms like discomfort, constipation, thyroid enlargement in the beginning, and more severe problems later.

However, this is yet to be conclusively proven through scientific research.

So far, the thyroid-related side effects have been identified primarily in individuals with an already underperforming thyroid gland, with no side effects on healthy individuals whatsoever.

So, if you already have thyroid issues, you might not want to use soybean regularly.

Diarrhea and flatulence

Insoluble fibers, considered with all the digestive benefits, can sometimes lead to flatulence and diarrhea in sensitive individuals and may even worsen the condition of someone already suffering from IBS.

Though not entirely unhealthy for the conditions mentioned above, people who have them should limit the use of soybean in their diet.

Allergic effects

Soybean contains proteins named glycinin and conglycinin, which trigger allergic reactions in specific individuals.

Though relatively uncommon, watch out if your body does not respond well!

Where to get soybeans?

You can find soybean in any specialty market, health food stores, or supermarkets’ natural food section.

It will be either canned or packed, depending on whether you buy it cooked or dry. If you are looking for edamame, you would certainly head to a fresh market.

If you don’t have soybean available for any reason, you can also get them online. Be sure to buy non-GMO soybeans like these from Pinstar Supply in bulk.

Premium Grade Non-GMO Soybeans Bulk Great Price (5 Pounds)

(view more images)

Conclusion

Soybean is an oilseed crop with many health benefits, including stronger bones, decreased recovery time for fractures, and a lower chance of catching any potential side effects.

Besides its medical significance, it also makes up for a great food ingredient. It can be eaten in many different ways, on its own or in other recipes.

However, while making it a part of your diet, it is crucial to be aware of the adverse effects of soybean on your body, especially if you have thyroid issues.

Now you know what soybean is, how you can prepare it, and most of all, its impact on your health and other necessary info.

Find out about the two most popular soy-based products from Japan and how they compare: Miso vs. Soy Sauce

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.