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Fermented soy products - the 'safe' soy

The Chinese knew long ago that fermented soy products were the only safe and healthy way to eat soy beans.

Historical writings tell us that the Chinese began to cultivate soy beans more than 5,000 years ago. But for the first 2,000 years, soybeans were grown merely as a crop to re-generate the soil. They were not eaten!

It was only around 1000 BC, when someone discovered a process to ferment soy beans using a mold, that the Chinese began to eat soy beans.

The development of fermented soy products not only made soy consumption safe by destroying its natural toxins. It also released the great benefits of soy, to the extent that soy beans became regarded by the Chinese as one of five "sacred grains" - even though it is not a grain but a bean / legume.

A few hundred years later (no one is sure of the date, but possibly around 100+ BC), the Chinese developed an easier way to make soybeans safe for human consumption - by soaking it in water, cooking, squeezing out the soy milk and then adding a coagulant derived from sea salt (magnesium chloride, today best known by its Japanese name, nigari).

The ancient Chinese knew all of this long ago. Without modern scientic knowledge, they already knew about the dangers of soy as well as the value of fermented soy. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), fermented soy products were listed in Chinese medical books as important foods as well as effective cures for diseases.

Dangers of non-fermented soy products

Sadly, modern medical experts have only recently discovered what the ancient Chinese knew. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was much talk about the benefits of soy - but without particular reference to fermented soy products.

This led to the development of all sorts of strange new soy foods - soy burgers, soy steak, isolated soy protein, soy crackers, soy pudding, soy "ice cream", etc etc. And only in more recent years, people people in modern western societies had been going overboard in soy consumption, have medical experts turned their attention to the dangers of soy.

And so finally we learn from scientists that soy beans contain highly toxic anti-nutrients that interfere with the body's absorption of nutrients. Without fermentation or extensive processing like soaking and long cooking, soy products can cause various problems, including:

Benefits of fermented soy

Fermented soy products are beneficial to health in several ways:

First, the process of fermentation destroys toxins that are naturally present in soy, making it safe for humans to enjoy the benefits of soy. This has made a highly nutritious food - containing high quality protein and good amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients - readily available even to the poor.

Second, apart from simply making the benefits of soy available, the process of fermentation further enhances these benefits. This is because when we eat fermented soy products, we do not just eat soy but also the fermenting agent, which is the mold. We not only enjoy the benefits of both ingredients, but also new products formed when the different ingredients interact.

Third, being a fermented product, fermented soy contain active "friendly bacteria" or probiotics that help disgestion and promote intestinal health.

This is, of course, provided the fermented products are not cooked until the friendly bacteria have been totally destroyed. Natto is mostly eaten raw while miso and soy sauce are usually added towards the end of cooking and then only gently simmered. The bacteria are quite hardy and can survive gentle simmering for a few minutes. Only tempeh is usually eaten well-cooked, most commonly deep fried or in stews.

Scientific studies on fermented soy

Scientific studies done on fermented soy products have found them helpful in preventing various degenerative diseases like heart disease and certain types of cancer as well as possibly helping in the recovery process.

Interestingly, while scientists have identified certain beneficial elements in fermented soy products, the evidence also suggest that the benefits of fermented soy do not arise just from specific chemicals, but from the entire food.

Click here to learn more about individual fermented soy products lile miso, natto, soy sauce and tempeh.

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