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?

Humble Beginnings
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.

European Delights
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.


William C
William Cabout a year ago


W. C
W. Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

Vural K.
Past Member 8 years ago


Elizabeth R.
Elizabeth R8 years ago

The fact that Okinawans eat a lot of soy and have a very low incidence of cancer does NOT prove that the soy is the reason for the low incidence of cancer. That is just plain bad science. There are MANY differences between the typical Okinawan diet and the typical American diet.

My understanding is that Asians, in general, including Okinawans eat enormous amounts of mushrooms (as compared to Americans) and not the white button type that is the only thing most Americans ever eat. Sara, feel free to correct me if I am wrong, I don't know anyone from Okinawa personally, but this is what I have been learning from the herbalist I am studying with.

Shitakes, maitakes, enokis, etc... have known powerful anitcancer properties. Mushrooms are more likely the reason the Okinawans have such a low cancer rate.

For a pretty comprehensive report on the medicinal uses of mushrooms and specifically their anti-cancer properties check this out...

And just for the record, I am NOT saying the Soy causes breast cancer, but I am not saying that it does not possibly increase your risk either. The studies so far are conflicting and inconclusive. What I am saying is that if you are at high risk like I am, better to err on the safe side and limit your consumption of soy.

Roger Engelke
Roger E8 years ago

Soy protein is contaminated with a toxic chemical solvent that's a byproduct of gasoline refining. The chemical? Hexane.

It's found in soy protein that's used in infant formula, protein bars, "veggie" burgers and other soy products. It's a neurotoxin that could be very dangerous to the health of you and your children.

Read the full details here:

Jane J.
Jane J.8 years ago

Yeah, well, all fine and good until you develop an allergy to soy (it's one of the big 8 food allergens). It takes HUGE diligence to avoid soy, if that's your goal, as it is now ubiquitous. Since soy gives me eczema, which rots, I thought you all might a warning. Ships loaded with soy are associated with outbreaks of asthma. ( American Journal of Epidemiology Vol. 145, No. 5: 432-438) Don't even get me started on monocultures and Monsanto destroying small independent family farms in South America. Soy is not a godsend. Be mindful.

Stuart L.
Stuart L8 years ago

They may not have a lot of breast cancer in Japan, but stomach cancer is very common. I think their eating red meat so seldom keeps the soy from being as dangerous as it would be in the U.S. Japanese food is in general not too fatty, but I used to go to a Okinawa restaurant in California, and was it greasy!

Sara S.
Sara S8 years ago

I happen to know people from Okinawa actually, and they have told me plenty, far more than any article can BS about. Soy is in fact a STAPLE in their diet. MASSIVE amounts of tofu is in fact eaten, as well as fermented soy in miso, yes. Red meat or saturated fat is eaten at most once a week, or month in TINY portions, mostly pork/pig feet...and nearly everything they eat is organic and grown by their own hands.
Along with the soy consumption they'll also generally eat 10 servings of vegetables and fruits a dayyy, lots of grains too, just as much. So, this is just coming from someone who is from there. ;)

Stuart L.
Stuart L8 years ago

A question for Carol R. Which type of lecithin that contains solvents and pesticides are you referring to? The granulated, or the liquid in the capsules, or both? Your input is appreciated. You certainly are well informed. Thank you, Carol.

Jessica H.
Jessica H8 years ago

They primarily eat small amounts of fermented soy. To say that fermented soy and soy carry no difference, is like saying that there's no difference between free-range organic chicken breasts and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

To Sara S. who wrote the comment below, the doctor on the article you posted mentions Dr. Andrew Weil as a reference. While Dr. Weil has some positive attributes, he's become a true health sell-out.

In Okinawa, where the average lifespan for women is 84 years, longer than in Japan, the inhabitants eat generous amounts of pork and seafood and do all of their cooking in lard.

That "Food Revolution" article you posted on the comment below, doesn't recognize the Okinawan diet. It says in that article:
"cow milk provides more than nine times as much saturated fat as soy beverages, so is far more likely to contribute to heart disease."

That goes to show that the poorly informed writer of that article doesn't acknowledge the Okinawan diet, or he wouldn't have mentioned how saturated fat is bad, since the Okinawan diet is full of saturated fat.

People have championed soy as the ideal source of protein but soy has large amounts of phytic acid which prevents absorption of minerals, and it has trypsin inhibitors which poorly affects digestion, and also it has three thyroid suppressors (isoflavones, genistein, and daidzein).

No food is marketed like soy for a reason. It ain't for health benefits. See the "Soy Joy" ad to the right. Case in point.