Different kinds of beans
Soybeans are one of the world's most versatile foods. They can be dried, boiled. crushed, curdled, fermented and crushed up into cattle feed and eaten as beans, nuts, oil, flour, powder, tofu, milk and sauce. There are nearly 7,500 varieties of soybeans ranging color from green to red to white with brown marble patterns. The most familiar one is yellow. Soy beans as we know them do not grow in the wild. The largest producers are Brazil and the United States. [Source: Fred Hapgood, National Geographic, July 1987, ╾]

Soybeans come from wild soybeans, ground-dwelling vines that are found in northeastern China and very different from modern, commercial soy bean plants. The black and brown beans from these wild plants were collected by prehistoric Chinese at least by 3500 B.C., first cultivated by Chinese farmers about 1000 B.C., and fashioned into tofu about a 1000 years later. Soy beans were not known by Europeans until a German physician in Japan wrote about them in 1690. They remained largely unknown in the West until 1900.

Soybeans grows well in soils too depleted to support other crops. The colonies of microorganisms that live with the soy bean plants return nitrogen to the soil that helps other crops to grow. These days soy beans are mainly grown for oil and animal feed.

Top soy-bean producing countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) United States of America, 16807533 , 80748700; 2) Brazil, 12360728 , 59242480; 3) Argentina, 9858712 , 46238087; 4) China, 2791841 , 15545141; 5) India, 2032695 , 9905000; 6) Paraguay, 1308722 , 6311794; 7) Canada, 598918 , 3335900; 8) Bolivia (Plurinational State of), 245792 , 1259676; 9) Uruguay, 180412 , 880000; 10) Indonesia, 159166 , 776491; 11) Russian Federation, 151649 , 745990; 12) Ukraine, 125847 , 812800; 13) Nigeria, 111548 , 591000; 14) Serbia, 73030 , 350946; 15) Democratic People's Republic of Korea, 69942 , 345000; 16) South Africa, 57588 , 282000; 17) Viet Nam, 57410 , 268600; 18) Italy, 57358 , 346245; 19) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 41695 , 197246; 20) Thailand, 39846 , 186598;

Top soy-bean producing countries
The Japanese consume more than 20 kilograms of soy beans per person a year. Soy beans are used to make tofu, miso, natto and other staples of the Japanese diet. A clay pot, dated to the mid Jomon period (10,000 to 400 B.C.), was found in Hokuo, Yamanashi Prefecture with Japan’s oldest species of cultivated soybean imbedded in it. The finding, announced in 2007 by officials at the Yamanashi Prefecture Museum of Art, suggest that soybeans have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, making it one of the world’s first cultivated foods.

About 80 percent of the soy beans consumed in Japan are imported, mostly from the United States, Canada, Brazil and Australia. Imported beans cost around ¥4,000 for 60 kilograms, compared to ¥9,000 to ¥15,000 for domestically-grown beans. .

Websites and Resources: American Soybean Association ; Purdue University Info ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Soya Foods ; Iowa Soybean Association ; Beyond the Bean ; SoyInfo Center, History of Soybeans ; Soy Products on the Cook’s Thesaurus ; Wikipedia article on Natto Wikipedia ; Miso Online ; Miso Soup ; YouTube Video of Tofu Making YouTube ; Wikipedia article on Tofu Wikipedia ; Nora (20 miles north of Tokyo) is regarded as the soy sauce capital of Japan. The main Kikkoman factory is here.

Soybeans and Health

Viewed as nutritional savior for the world, soybeans are rich in protein, calcium and B vitamins; high in mono-saturated (good) fat; and contains many photo chemicals, which scientist are starting to believe may help combat a wide variety of diseases. Because they have no starch soybeans are an important part of a diabetics diet and have more protein than lean beef. In places with little meat they are often an important source of protein.

Soybeans contain as much as 35 percent to 40 percent protein and as little as 35 percent carbohydrates and 18 percent fat and are the only true meat substitute in the legume family that supplies all the essential amino acids. In east Asia, they have traditionally been the major source of protein among people who either avoided meat voluntarily or were too poor to afford meat. Buddhist monks on a strict vegetarian diet get their important amino acids from soybeans.

Products made with soy beans contains weak estrogens (female hormones) called isoflavones which are believed to reduce the likelihood of getting prostrate and breast cancer and reproductive tumors. Chinese woman on high-soy diets have half the incidences of breast cancer as women on low-soy diets. Japanese women who eat soy products throughout their lives have lower rates of breast cancer than those who do not. Japanese women that come down with breast cancer have higher survival rate than Westerners. These studies do not rule out something other than soy causing the benefits.

soy milk bath
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that soy protein may reduce risks or coronary diseases by lowering blood cholesterol levels A study at the University of Kentucky showed that consuming two servings a day of uncooked soy protein such as that found in tofu, soy milk and soy powder, reduces bad cholesterol intake by around nine percent. Eating soy products increase the activity of lipoprotein receptors in the liver that clear bad cholesterol from the body. Soy products that had been cooked do not provide these same benefits.

A study by Japanese scientists found that a combination of capsaicin, the chemical that makes chilli’s hot, and isoflavone, a chemical in soy beans, helped restore head and eyebrow hair that fallen out due to stress. The chemicals raised levels of peptides in the body that stimulated the production of an insulin-like growth factor that in turn caused hair to grow. The hair of one man who lost hair due to stress grew back after taking the two chemicals for two months. A kind of freeze-dried tofu is said to reduce dioxin levels in the body.

Products Made from Soy Beans

miso udon
Tofu, miso and soy sauce are staples of the east Asian diet and are now are very common place in the United States and Europe too. There are also many unconventional uses of soy derivatives. Soil meal is used in making vegeburgers and in brewing beer; tofu is fashioned into ice cream; and soy milk is sweetened and sold as a soft drink in Southeast Asia.

Many non-food products also rely on soy beans. Boxes are made from soybean-derived cardboard and held together with soybean glues. Soybean oil is used in ink, artificial petroleum and waterproof goods. Paints and caulking use soy paste as a thickener and fire extinguishers use soy protein in their foam. Soy lecithin is used as a lubricant. Soybeans are an essential ingredient in skateboards, bicycle tires and running shoes. In 1940 Henry Ford demonstrated the strength of soybean-derived plastic by smashing the trunk a car made with the stuff with an ax.

Scientists are looking into making plastics from soy beans that could replace plastic made from oil. They have already made polyurethane---the primary petroleum-based plastic---from converted soybean oil and have used it to make couch cushions, electric insulation, carpets, and even building materials. In the United States there is hope that products made from soy bean plastic could reduce its dependence on foreign oil. Soy beans are a renewable resource that be grown

See Biofuel

Soy Sauce

soy sauce topping and ice cream
Soy sauce is made from soybeans that have been steamed under pressure and mixed with roasted wheat and a ton of rock salt. Malt bacteria or yeast is added to cause fermentation, which lasts for six to ten months, after which time the mash is squeezed and soy sauce is poured out. During the pressing moromi (a mixture of soy beans, koji dry mash and salt water) in cotton bags is pressed to extract the raw soy sauce. The mixture is heated and pasteurized, which stabilizes the color and aroma. The waste is often sold as food to fish farms.

Chinese introduced soy-sauce-making methods to Japan in the 13th century. There used to be hundreds of varieties of locally-produced soy sauces but industrialization in the 19th and early 20th century helped homogenize them into factory-produced national brands. The mold used in fermentation is called Aspergillus. It is so revered at the Kikkoman Corporation Soy Sauce Plant, production workers call it "ancestor."

The house of Kadacho, based in the town of Yuasa, produces premium soy sauces that sell for around $14 a liter. Fermented for one and half years, they are is made with pure spring water, no additives and carefully measured amounts of salt, soy beans and wheat. The company insists on using wooden vats and wood fires rather that modern stainless steal vats and gas, the norm in the soy sauce industry.


Tofu is made from pressed, coagulated soy milk. A staple in Asia along with rice, it is one of the most nutritiously complete foods: rich in protein, loaded with minerals, low in calories, almost devoid of fat or cholesterol and friendly to the environment. The word “tofu” is derived from the Chinese dofu (do for “curdled” and fu for “bean”).

Tofu is said to have been invented by a Chinese scholar in 164 B.C. and imported to Japan via Korea about the same time Buddhism was, around A.D. 600. It was mentioned in 1183 in a journal of a priest at Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara and has long been a food offered at temples and shrines. It was particularly valued as source of protein among Buddhist monks that didn't eat meat.

For a long time tofu was eaten mainly by the upper classes and vegetarian monks, in part because pulverizing the dried soy beans by hand was very time consuming and labor intensive. The introduction of the millstone to Japan made pulverizing easier and help bring tofu to the masses.

Tofu is also important in Japanese culture. During their training geisha girls learn to eat tofu without touching it to their lacquered lips. In the mame-maki ceremony held in February to welcome spring, packets of sacred soybeans are thrown into the air and scattered around the home to ward off evil spirits. In a ceremony called hari-kuyo broken sewing needles are given a final resting place in tofu-filled pan placed on a Shinto alter.

Tofu consumption has dropped from 72 pounds per person in 1967 to 59 pounds in 1999. In the old days many Japanese came out of their houses with bowls and bought tofu from vendors who rode through neighborhoods on their bicycles. Kyoto has generally been regarded as the source of Japan' s best tofu.

There are around 10,000 shops in Japan that make fresh tofu every day and deliver it door to door. There used to be more than three times that number but competition from supermarkets has forced many to close.


bean plant
The family of plants called legumes includes food plants such as beans, peas, chick peas, soybeans, lentils, peanuts; forage plants such as alfalfa and clover; vine kudzu; and wild flowers, weeds and ornamental plants and trees such as wisteria, tamarind, acacia, senna, indigo, locoweed and licorice. Some members of the family have tendrils by which they can climb like vines. Legumes are also called pulses.

Lentils and peas were among the first foods to be cultivated. There is evidence that were first cultivated around 11,000 years ago.

Legume seeds contain higher concentrations of protein than those found in other plants. One hundred grams of beans, holds between 20 and 40 grams of protein, compared of nine for barely, 10 for wheat, eight for brown rice and three for corn. Legumes are popular among vegetarians because they are one of the few plant foods that are rich in the kinds of proteins found in meat.

Legumes and Agriculture

country bean
Their roots of legumes shelter a special nitrogen-fixing bacteria that converts nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that provide food for plants. For this reason, farmers often grow legumes with other crops so the legumes can provide nitrogen compounds for the other crops.

Soy beans, alfalfa and sweet clover. For example, are often planted in a rotation with food crops such as corn to provide nitrogen for them. Alfalfa and clover are water thirsty crops that are widely grown as feed for livestock. Nitrogen is also passed on to the legume plants which at least partly explains why legume seeds have high concentrations of protein, which also needs nitrogen

Biotechnology has produced soy beans immune to weed killers and soy beans that are missing the genetic material that causes allergic reactions.


Beans and peas are pod-bearing plants that belong to the legume family. Bean pods range from two to eight inches long. They develop from butterfly-shaped flowers. The food that people are the seeds. The majority of the 20,000 species of legume are poisonous.

Beans are among the world's earliest cultivated crops along with wheat, barley, grapes, and melons. Broad beans have been known in Europe for a long time. They were first domesticated in the Mediterranean or western Asia. Remains of them dating to 6000 to 7000 B.C. have been found at sites in Israel. By 3000 B.C. they were grown widely across central Europe and northern Africa and have been found with mummies in ancient Egyptian coffins.

20120525-beans Pidvysoke_(3).JPG
bean plants
There are many kinds of beans. Winged beans are popular in the Philippines and have been eaten by rain forest tribes in New Guinea for centuries. They are regarded as nutritious as sou beans and are produced in 50 countries. . Black-eyed peas are originally from Africa. Many of the ones we are familiar with today originated in the New World and were introduced to Europeans in Mexico and Peru. Lima beans for example are native to South American and were brought to Europe by the Spanish.

Broad beans come from rough plants with thick stems and large leaves with egg-shaped leaflets and two distinctive stripes at their base. They produce flowers that range in color from white to light purple with dark blue lines on the part of the flower that sticks up the back and a dark blue or black patch on the wings. The pods are large and have an irregular, knobby shape.

Beans are widely consumed by vegetarian because of they are rich in the kinds of proteins found in meat. Broad beans contain up to 25 percent protein as opposed to only 1.5 percent fat. They also contain large amounts of carbohydrates and some Vitamin C. In some people they cause the breakdown of red blood cells. The condition, known as fauvism, occurs in people that lack an essential enzyme.

In many places broad beans can be planted in the autumn, left in the fields over the winter and harvested in spring. Where frost is a danger they are protected by plants such as leafy bamboo that are stuck in the ground alongside the rows. The plants begin growing quicky when the weather warms up and are ready to harvest in May. In many places they have traditionally served as a hedge in case their was problem growing the summer crops.

Chickpeas are a legume that has been cultivated since biblical times.

Chickpeas and cowpeas

Also known as Garbanzo beans, they originated in the Fertile Crescent and are an important food in the Middle East, where they are made into humus and falafels. They are also the source of gram flour, which is widely used in South Asia to make bread.

Chickpeas are seeds. They may be eaten whole or ground into gram flour. The green pods and tender young shoots of the plants that produce chickpeas can be eaten like a vegetable. In the Mediterranean area people like to eat chick peas cold, marinated with oil and vinegar.

Cowpeas are a grain legume grown in savannah regions of the tropic and subtropics. The majority of it is grown in West and Central Africa.

beans in a Kathmandu market

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane, 2) xorsyst blog, 3) Japan Zone; 4) Wikimedia Commons;

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.