Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sesame Tofu Bowl with Peanut Dressing

Ah, the great soy debate. It comes to mind every time I post about a tofu dish, because I often wonder what side of it my readers fall on. Health food? Not a health food? Okay in moderation? Not okay at all?

This much we know about tofu: It is high in protein. Complete protein. It's also very high in calcium. It's versatile - it can be used instead of meat; it can be used instead of cheese. It can be baked, broiled grilled and fried; it can thicken smoothies and frost cupcakes.

A lot of people are allergic to it. Many more, still, have a lot of difficulty digesting it.

It's also continually voted Most Likely to be Genetically Modified. And highly processed. And put in places it has no business being. Places where people have no idea they are even consuming it, because it's hidden amongst a novel of preservative and chemical ingredients on the package of a convenience food. Subsequently, it can be quite dangerous.

So what is it? Good or bad? Neither? Both?

Soy (tofu particularly) experienced the backlash that all popular products experience:

Step one: Someone says Product is awesome. Says it has immense health benefits. It's going to extend our lives.

Step two: Because we are creatures of excess, we stuff ourselves with insane amounts of Product, three times a day, even though the studies we used to discover how great it is clearly show how moderately it is to be consumed. At the same time, industry competitors grow alarmed at how much Product is cutting into their market dominance and launch a backlash.

Step three: Someone/many someones fall ill, because they consumed Product three times a day for a year, because someone told them it was a health food and it was going to save their lives. Industry competitors use this as an opportunity to show people how awful Product is in an attempt to once again secure market dominance.

Step four: Panic.

Soy is a classic case of mainstream success turning into mainstream backlash. A couple decades ago it was going revolutionize our health. Then soy milk became the first alternative to animal milk to be mass marketed and people slowly began swapping out cow's milk.

Naturally, the dairy industry was not amused. They're still not. Every year, the United States meat and dairy industries fund a colossal amount of anti-soy research. The results, in turn, get presented as a part of a larger anti-veg*n project, because let's be honest - they're a business, just like any other, and we are cutting into that business. Soy is the natural front-runner for criticism, because it is so popular among vegans and is such a prevalent symbol of veg*ism in the mainstream.

The thing is, they are not completely wrong about soy. And while the vegan community rarely agrees with anything that the animal agriculture industry has to say, there are many health-oriented vegans that similarly support the notion that soy is bad. In the same way, many factions of animal agriculture rely on soy as an inexpensive way to sustain the animals that are to be sold to slaughter and are thus more moderate about the issue than their counterparts. This is not a black or white issue for either side.

The bottom line is this. If you eat ten pounds of soy every day, you're going to have problems. If you're one of the many, many people that has a soy allergy or intolerance, you're also going to have problems. Even if you have just a little bit. Statistics on increased cardiovascular health and the anti-inflammatory properties of tofu mean nothing to you if you cannot digest soy properly. For you, it's not a health food. For you, it's a sourcer of stomach aches. And just like those with a peanut allergy aren't going to be PB-ing their morning toast anytime soon, you aren't going to rush out and try the latest tempeh flavours.

I've been studying soy for years and I personally believe that the more major accusations against soy (that it "causes" cancer, that it "causes" infertility, that it will always lead to estrogen dominance, etc.) are quite unfounded and bordering on malicious. In fact, there's even been some evidence of soy playing an important role in the prevention of cancer and may even increase fertility when part of a well-balanced vegan diet when compared to the Standard American Diet. Unless, of course, soy is all that you eat. Remember, the important word in that sentence is well-balanced.

Me? I'm a proud Soy Moderate. Too much of it and I feel like crap, so I only eat it once or twice a week at the most. Some weeks I have none, some weeks I have more. I have non-dairy milk everyday, so I use unsweetened almond instead of soy. If I had a health issue related to excess estrogen I would probably consider removing it from my diet entirely. But I don't, so I don't.

The soy I eat is always organic. Non-GMO, obviously. Unless I'm being bad and indulging in something deep-fried and completely unhealthy for a whole host of reasons other than the fact that it contains soy. I'm not above admitting to being a bad vegan now and again.

I'm also quite fond of fermented soy, such as tempeh and miso. The fermentation process neutralizes the phytic acid and soy isoflavones, which are what researchers point to in the great cancer debate (although there is really no concrete proof of the connection existing the in the first place). Tempeh also has more protein and fiber than tofu and in our house we use it a lot more often than tofu. Between the two, tempeh is clearly the healthier choice.

Within the vegan community, the line between soy support and soy backlash is usually drawn between those who went vegan for the animals and those who went vegan for their health, although once you're vegan for awhile that line tends to get blurred. Neither side is particularly wrong or particularly right, I don't think. Originally coming to veganism as an extension of my animal advocacy only to later discover the immense health benefits of plant-based living is probably why I started out as an avid soy supporter and now take a much more moderate stance. While I choose not to consume it all that often, for me it is always a better choice than supporting the violence built into the Standard American Diet. I do, however, also believe that soy is immensely abused within veg*n communities and should return to its rightful role as a moderate component of a whole food, plant-based diet. That being said, I fully support those who choose to completely abstain from soy as much as I support those who select a soy product instead of chicken. We each have the right and responsibility to create a version of vegan that works best for us.

While I do reach for the tempeh more often than I reach for the tofu, one of the few times I prefer tofu to tempeh is in bowls like the one pictured at the top of this post. Tempeh has a great nutty flavour and aroma that works well in so many dishes, but I find that it can also overpower them. Tofu, on the other hand, is much more mild and lets the flavours of the other dish components do the talking instead.

There is also something super magical about tofu in a peanut sauce.

The recipe for this meal comes from the Show Me Vegan blog and you can find it here. I love it, because it's another one that combines raw and cooked components. In conjunction with the tofu and brown rice, I chopped up some raw baby spinach, bell pepper, green onion and red cabbage. I'm actually coming around to cabbage, I can't believe it! It has to be raw, though. The thought of cooked cabbage still gives me the heebie jeebies.


Carrie (Carrie on Vegan) said...

This is a really great post with thoughtful advice about soy consumption. I agree with your thoughts on moderation completely! Soy has so many healthful properties, it's a shame that it's gotten a bad rap.

Catherine said...

I really enjoyed this post! As a total ignoramus on soy, it was really informative and I really like that you were able to lay out all the different angles regarding it and not just sticking to one side because it supports a certain belief. On another note....tofu icing cupcakes? Do tell!

"Meat-free" Mike said...

I consume a 4 lb block of Soy Boy tofu every week or so and feel GREAT! That's just my thing though. I love it!

Mary said...

Carrie - It is very frustrating what a bad rap soy has gotten, and because of that veg*ism ITSELF has gotten a bad rap because people seem to think that all vegans eat is soy! I'm glad to see research coming out in support of soy as a moderate component of a plant-based diet, for those who can tolerate it digestively.

Catherine - Oh yes, it can help make yummy frosting for cakes! The traditional image of tofu is the firm bricks/blocks you get in stir fries and whatnot, but there is also something called silken tofu and it's soft, more like a liquid than a brick and can be used in place of egg whites. It is perfect for thickening up frostings, smoothies, etc! It's also what we vegans use to make our mock cheesecakes because it creates the right texture.

Meat-free Mike - Awesome! Great way to be plant strong!

Audrey said...

I recently read the book Vegan for Life (I plan on putting a review up on my blog soon) and they have a whole chapter on soy. Reading the book has really cleared up a lot of my misconceptions. Sure, if you eat nothing but so--or huge amounts every single day--it's probably not good. But I don't think eating a lot of anything is good. As part of balanced diet, and as long as one doesn't have allergies, soy can be a really healthy addition to the diet and a great source of nutrients.

Bliss Doubt said...

I love tempeh bacon. That's about it. I've avoided soy because I think we're fooling ourselves in thinking that organic soy crops are not contaminated with gmo soy. Plus, I never cared much for tofu.

Even before gmo, it seemed that everything vegetarian was made of soy--meat analogues, cheese analogues, milk, yogurt, ice cream substitutes, just everything. I was more interested in exploring vegetable cuisine, delicious nutritious things made of undisguised veggies and fruits.

Now we have more options, nut cheeses, almond based whipped topping, and I'm more open. I kinda let myself get hooked on Gardein, knowing one of the main ingredients of the whole line is soy.

Mary said...

Audrey - Agreed with regard to soy in moderation. I haven't had a chance to read that book; I'll have to look it up!

Bliss - Great point with regard to the crops as well as always putting vegetables first. Couldn't agree more with that. As for Gardein - sometimes I think it's a vegan product but I also wouldn't be surprised if one day they came out and said it was laced with crack... the more often I have it the more often I want it!

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