The Roots of Soy: A Look Back Through the Ages
By Veronica Peterson, Editor, Healthy & Green Living
We love it in soups and stews and even in the place of popcorn as a healthy snack for movie time. It takes prize as the only plant-based protein with all the essential amino acids while still offering protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. But what do we really know about this little bean so beloved by vegetarians and vegans the world over?
The provenance of the soybean harkens all the way back to 11th century BC China, making history as one of man’s first cultivated crops, used both for food and medicine. The ancient Chinese Emperor Sheng-Nung named five sacred plants – soybeans, rice, wheat, barley, and millet – as essential to the existence of man.
First Asia, Then the World
Because of its vast nutritional value and easy growing ability, soy soon spread throughout the whole of Asia where it was turned into a variety of foods, including our popular modern-day versions: miso, tempeh, and that vegetarian staple, tofu.
Fast forward to the 17th century when European explorers introduced the plant and its yummy derivatives to the continent. Europeans first fell in love with soy sauce and by the 18th century, the beans were being harvested in nearly all the western European nations.
Crossing the Ocean
The great success of soy farming in Europe led early American settlers to try their hand at growing the bean. Originally they were grown solely to export back to Europe but gradually became known for their superior nutrition and slightly nutty flavor.
War Changes Everything
Yet, it was not until after World War I, when pioneers such as George Washington Carver and John Harvey Kellogg discovered and began promoting the health benefits of soybeans, that the public really took notice. Soybeans were highly valued as a source of oil and of inexpensive, high-quality protein. Interest in the nutritional benefits of soybeans has steadily increased since then, in response to the recent scientific research that supports the multitude of ways soybeans promote health.
Today, the United States is the world’s leading commercial producer of soybeans.