What are Soybeans?

Brendan McGuigan

Soybeans are legumes that grow throughout much of the world and constitute one of the world's major food crops. They are turned into a wide array of foods, including tofu, miso, soymilk and tempeh. Soybeans have been in use as a food crop in Asia for as long as history has been recorded, but didn't make their way to the United States until the 19th century. In the modern world, the vast majority are either turned into oil or used as feed for livestock. There are two major types cultivated these days: the yellow and black varieties. There is no significant nutritional difference between the two.

Tofu is a soybean product.
Tofu is a soybean product.

There are a number of different ways soybeans may be prepared for human consumption. They may be eaten sprinkled with salt and boiled, in a form usually referred to by the Japanese name edamame. They may be turned into soymilk, a process involving soaking them in water, then grinding them and boiling them into a milky substance. The curds from this soymilk may then be pressed into blocks of tofu, in a process similar to that of making cheese from dairy milk. Whole soybeans may also be cooked slightly and then fermented using vinegar and the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus to make tempeh. The leftover soy flour from extracting the oil is also used to create textured vegetable protein (TVP), which is often used in meat substitutes.

Soybeans beside a glass of soymilk.
Soybeans beside a glass of soymilk.

The health benefits and concerns of soybeans are hotly debated by leading nutritionists and medical professionals. They contain a full range of amino acids and a high protein content, making them an ideal supplemental source, particularly for vegetarians and vegans. Many people hold that soy should not be fed to infants in any form, as it may lead to allergies, but this is contested by other experts.

Edamame are soybeans and are used in various dishes.
Edamame are soybeans and are used in various dishes.

Soybeans are also one of the most genetically-modified crops, with a full 80% of those grown on Earth having undergone some sort of modification. The most famous of these modifications is the Roundup Ready soybean, which can be sprayed with the weed-killer and survive. Their genetically-modified status is a cause of concern for many who tout its health benefits and believe genetically modified foods to have possible health risks. For this reason, many soy products proclaim that they use non-GMO (genetically-modified organism) soybeans.

Brazil is one of the world's leading producers of soybeans.
Brazil is one of the world's leading producers of soybeans.

Over 100 million metric tons of soybeans are produced globally each year, with the United States as the number one producer. Argentina and Brazil also play a large role in their production, and there is concern that their increased use of land to cultivate the legumes threatens the rainforest.

Soybeans are grown throughout much of the world.
Soybeans are grown throughout much of the world.

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Discussion Comments

anon280725

This is a great article to read. It's very eye opening to know that 80 percent of soybeans are modified (thanks WiseGeek.) Now, who would knowingly go and eat roundup weed killer? Yuck!

anon40364

The 3 grades of soybean are 1) animal feed 2) human consumption and 3) oil production.

osunbunmi22

pls i would like to know the various market grades of soybeans and how the grades affect the prices. if possible. i would also like to know the current average market prices of each grade in the global market. lastly, after the crop has been harvested, what other processing/preparation need to be done on it in readiness for marketing/export?

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