The colorful history of the soybean

Let’s start with a bit of history. The first written anecdotes in the West about soy came from Europe, describing a salty Japanese condiment (soy sauce) and a curious cheese-like substance (tofu) used in the Orient. The soybean is endemic (native) to east Asia, where it has been cultivated, together with mung beans, adzuki beans, millet and rice, since ancient times. While first grown in the US in the early 1800’s and used as a coffee substitute during the Civil War, it was slow to catch on in the New World until the late 1800’s, when farmers began growing the plant as forage for livestock.

George Washington Carver (1864–1943), the black American botanist, teacher and inventor, was instrumental in developing scores of uses for soybeans and other legumes. Among these were crop rotation methods that replenished soils depleted by cotton harvesting, which revolutionized farming practices in the South. Soy’s nitrogen-fixing root nodules have done a lot of good for depleted soils and hungry people, but the draining of huge tracts of swamplands in the South did irreversibly impact our environment — we may never again see another ivory-billed woodpecker, for instance. Soybeans soon became a Southern and Midwest staple crop, and it spread rapidly as new applications for use and manufacturing of soy products became apparent in the early 1900’s.

Henry Ford also contributed to the advancement of soybean utilization, spending millions on research and development of industrial uses of soy. Ford is credited with discovering how to use soy oil in plastics; he even envisioned a soybean car. He also served a complete soybean meal to the press corps at the 1934 World’s Fair — how it was received is anybody’s guess! He may have become a bit obsessed with soy products, creating fabrics from the plant and wearing a soybean suit.

Though soy fabrics never reached commercial fruition, all these efforts ushered in the age of plastics, and many parts of today’s cars are made from soybean derivatives, as are paints, enamels, inks, and soaps. We even have soy candles. Soy is definitely ubiquitous. By the early 1950’s the US had surpassed Asia as the world leader in soybean production, and in 2005, Brazil overtook the US.

Soybeans — Glycine maxSo what exactly is soy? All soy starts as three very plain beans in a pod. There are many variations in the bean size and a vast array of colors of flower and pod, but it is a hardy crop that can grow in temperate climates from North Dakota to Louisiana. The versatile soybean can then be eaten raw, soaked, boiled, roasted, fermented, inoculated, dried or flaked, its isoflavones and proteins isolated, its oil extracted, its hulls processed, and its seeds and germ ground into flour.

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