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The Secret of Edamame

Soy snack is a yummy - and healthy - handful
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

What's so secret about edamame? Well, the name for starters. The first few times I heard it, I had to ask, "eda-whaty?" As it turns out, it's just a fancy name for boiled green soybeans -- and the real secret is that they are much yummier than they sound.

I knew edamame had "arrived" when I saw Faith Hill snacking on them during a backstage-type interview for Country Music Television. They're the snack my favorite Japanese restaurant brings you when you sit down to a table, and they're the after-school snack my daughter asks for by name.

Say what you will about the debate over the health benefits of soy: any way you slice it, the edamame is a star legume! Just 1/2 cup of them a day really punches up the fiber, protein and vitamin/mineral content of your diet.

Here's what you'll find in a half-cup serving of shelled edamame (or 1 1/8 cup edamame in the pods):

  • 120 calories
  • 9 grams fiber
  • 2.5 grams fat
  • 1.5 grams polyunsaturated fat (0.3 grams plant omega-3 fatty acids)
  • 0.5 gram monounsaturated fat
  • 11 grams protein
  • 13 grams carbohydrate
  • 15 mg sodium
  • 10% of the Daily Value for vitamin C
  • 10% Daily Value for iron
  • 8% Daily Value for vitamin A
  • 4% Daily Value for calcium

As you can see, that little serving of edamame gives you a bunch of fiber: 9 grams, about the same amount you'll find in 4 slices of whole-wheat bread or 4 cups of steamed zucchini. It has almost as much protein as it does carbohydrate. It contains around 10% of the Daily Value for two key antioxidants; vitamins C and A. And for a plant food, it's quite high in iron; it has about as much as a 4-ounce roasted chicken breast.

The Soy Debate

The idea that soy is a wonder food has lost a bit of ground recently. An analysis of nearly 200 soy studies done over the past 20 years found that no firm conclusions could be made about most of the proposed benefits of soy.

According to Mark Messina, PhD, president of the nutritional consulting firm Nutrition Matters, these results aren't surprising because firm conclusions can be made only on the basis of large, long-term studies. As you might expect, these types of studies are very expensive.

"Consequently, most of the soy studies have been relatively short in duration and usually involved relatively small subject numbers," explains Messina.

Although most researchers agree that further research is needed, recent studies propose the following possible health benefits of soy:

  • Soy protein may help reduce insulin resistance, kidney damage, and fatty liver in people with diabetes, according to a study in rats.
  • A new study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong indicated that soy protein containing isoflavones (phytoestrogens) significantly reduced overall cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol, and raised HDL or "good" cholesterol, especially in men.
  • A study in women reported that regular consumption of soy foods was associated with healthy cholesterol levels.
  • The component thought to be at least partly responsible for soy's health benefits is a type of phytoestrogen called isoflavones. Isoflavones also appear to work with certain proteins in soy to protect against cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.
  • Results from a new study in China suggest that eating more soybean protein may help prevent and treat hypertension.
  • A study in which 12 postmenopausal women drank 36 ounces of soy milk daily for 16 weeks noted an anti-inflammatory effect of the isoflavones found in soy. According to the study authors, this may be important in the prevention of bone loss and cancer, among other things.

The bottom line: "It remains prudent to recommend soy in a heart-healthy diet because of [its] nutritional value and as a healthy substitute for protein sources that are higher in saturated fat and cholesterol," says Pennsylvania State University nutrition researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD.

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