Soy Foods: Best Choices and Cooking Tips

Soy bean, tofu and other soy products
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Soy is a versatile food providing protein, B vitamins, essential fatty acids, fiber, calcium and isoflavones. Isoflavones are phytoestrogens, or plant compounds, that may be beneficial in regard to certain cancers, cholesterol (particularly LDL), bone health and menopause symptoms. Though there are many benefits to soy foods, there is no need to consume it in excess. At high levels, soy may interfere with certain thyroid medications and it's also a highly genetically modified crop (GM). For more great resources on soy and vegetarian eating, visit the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group’s education center or the consumer site.

See my ranking below to make the best choices for your health. You will reap the benefits from 1-2 servings per day — ½ cup of tofu or tempeh, 1 cup of edamame beans or 1 cup of soy milk.

Best: Soy in its most natural state has added health benefits, such as probiotics in fermented products. Choose edamame beans, soy sprouts and fermented soy foods like miso, tempeh or natto.    

Cooking tips:  Toss edamame on a salad, sprinkle sprouts on a salad or in a wrap, start your meal with a cup of miso soup, use marinated tempeh as a meat substitute in a stir fry or sandwich, blend natto into a salad dressing. 

Medium: Look for minimal processing and read labels closely as these products can have added sugars or unwanted preservatives. Look for a label with few ingredients and no added sugar, flavors or color. Choose tofu, soy milk (unsweetened, whole-bean), soy beans and soy sauce. 

Cooking tips: Cook hot cereal with soy milk, mix soy nuts into trail mix, blend tofu into a smoothie or use it as substitute for cheese in a casserole (such as in the basil pesto recipe below), incorporate soy sauce into sauces and dressing for a savory, salty flavor.

Medium-low: Soy foods to only eat on occasion include more processed items that often contain additives such as soy flour, soynut butter, soy cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

Cooking tips: Bake with soy flour for a gluten-free option, spread soynut butter on crackers or sandwiches, use soy cheese in a quesadilla or casserole filled with veggies.  

Avoid: Highly processed soy that has been chemically altered, such as soy protein or soy protein isolate. These can be found in protein drinks, powders and bars. These products often have added sweeteners or colors and are missing key nutrients that make whole soy foods so healthy. Beware of processed soy meat analogs (hot dogs, chicken, etc.) that may have preservatives and high sodium content. 

Easy Pesto Casserole

A simple casserole packed with veggies, protein, and fresh flavor. Makes great leftovers!

Recipe adapted from Forks Over Knives Cookbook by Del Sroufe

2 teaspoons canola oil
2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced into thin rings
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ½ inch rounds
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 large yellow summer squash, cut into ½ inch rounds
2 large tomatoes, cut into ¾ inch rounds
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 batch of Basil Pesto *(see recipe below)


  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Boil potato rounds in a medium saucepan of water for 8-10 minutes. Drain and season with ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper.
  3. While potatoes are cooking, warm oil over medium heat in a large skillet and sauté onions for 10 minutes or until browned.
  4. In a glass 9×13 pan, place a layer of zucchini evenly on the bottom. Season with a sprinkle of the remaining salt and pepper and spread a dollop of basil pesto on top. Add a layer of yellow squash, season with salt and pepper and spread a dollop of basil pesto on top. Add a layer of potato rounds and spread a dollop of basil pesto on top. Repeat until veggies are used up in layers. Top with tomato slices and then onions. Season with dried basil.
  5. Bake casserole for 30 minutes. Let set for 10 minutes before serving.


Basil Pesto


2 cups packed basil (could also use arugula if desired)
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
1 package silken tofu, drained
¼ cup nutritional yeast


  1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth and creamy.

Nutritional info per serving (about 3/4 cup per serving): Calories: 167; Carbohydrate: 21 g; Fiber: 4 g; Protein: 8 g; Total fat: 7 g; Saturated fat: 0.6 g; Sodium: 373 mg; Star nutrients: Vitamin A (14% DV), calcium (5% DV), Vitamin C (55% DV), Iron (17%DV)

1.  Anselmo, A. Food and Nutrition Magazine, Stone Soup Blog. "What We Know about Soy and Cancer." Published April 7, 2013.  
2.  Asif M, Acharya M. Phytochemicals and Nutritional health benefits of soy plant. Int J Nut. 2013; 3(1): 64-69. 
3.  Fritz H et al. "Soy, Red Clover and Isoflavones and breast cancer: a systematic review." PLoS One. 2013; 8(11). 
4.  Higdon, Ph.D, J. Oregon State University; Linus Pauling Institute. "Soy Isoflavones." Published 2006. Updated 2009. Accessed 3/18/14. 
5.  Rice S, Whitehead SA. "Phytoestrogens and breast cancer–promoters or protectors?"  Endo-Relate Ca. 2006; 13: 995–1015.
6.  Sroufe D. Forks Over Knives the Cookbook.  NY, NY: The Experiment, LLC; 2012. 
7.  Williams Ph.D, J. & Nichols Ph.D, K. Huffington Post. "The Soy Controversy." Published August 24, 2010. Accessed March 19, 2014. 

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Ginger Hultin
Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN is the owner of the private practices, Champagne Nutrition, and Seattle Cancer Nutritionist in Seattle, WA. She specializes in integrative health and oncology, nutrigenomics, and plant-based diets. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.