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The soybean is a vegetable that belongs in the group of legumes and the botanical family of Faboideae (subfamily of Leguminosae). Their origin lies in China. Some experts think that it has been cultured as early as 2700 BC. Other sources date the first cultivation to about 800 BC. Today soybeans are the economically most important vegetable crop in the world. Towards the end of the 18th century soybeans were brought to Europe and the Americas. Nowadays they are grown everywhere in the world. The most important growing areas are China, India, Indonesia, Africa, the Philippines, South and Middle America and Russia. Soybeans have many different uses and can be processed into many different products, which made them the most important crop worldwide.

Soybeans grow mostly as a bush of up to 1 meter height. Some varieties may grow prostrate though or reach up to 2 meters. Their pod is yellow, grey or brown to black and hairy. It contains up to 5 seeds. These differ in form, size and colour, depending on the soybean variety. Most are cream coloured but green, red and black seeds are also available.

In Europe soybeans are best known dried. In Asia and America they are mostly processed fresh. The seeds are removed from the pods and processed like peas. Ripe beans that are harvested shortly before their pods burst are almost non-perishable if stored correctly.

High amounts of basic nutrients and valuable minerals make soybeans an important food crop. In many developing countries they ensure the supply with basic nutrients for people that cannot afford meat. 100 g soybeans contain:

  • Protein 36,8 %
  • fat 23,5 %
  • Carbohydrates 23,5 %
  • Sodium 4 mg
  • Potassium 1750 mg
  • Calcium 260 mg
  • Phosphorous 590 mg
  • Magnesium 250 mg
  • Iron 8,6 mg
  • Fluoride 0,3 mg
  • Vitamin A 0,095 mg
  • Vitamin E 13,3 mg
  • Vitamin B1 1,0 mg
  • Vitamin B2 0,3 mg
  • Niacin 2,5 mg
  • Vitamin K 0,19 mg
  • Purine 380 mg
  • Folic acid 94 mg
  • Zinc 1,0 mg
  • Manganese 2,8 mg
  • Copper 0,11 mg
  • Selenium 0,06 mg
  • Iodine 0,006 mg

(See also: vitamins, minerals and nutrients.)

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Soybean products

Soybeans are used in the production of many processed foods. Soybean oil is one major application produced by pressing or solvent-extraction. It is sold as vegetable oil or further refined and often processed for hydrogenated spreadable fats. They contain the essential fatty acids linoleic acid and linolenic acid. A by-product of soybean oil production is lecithin. It is used as an emulisifier by the food industry. Soybean meal that is left over from the oil production is used for the production of tofu, miso (soybean paste and a base for Japanese soups and sauces), soymilk, soy flour, soy yoghurt, soy pasta and textured vegetable protein. A popular product of the soy plant is bean sprouts. They go well with fresh salads and are essential in many Asian cuisines. (See also: mung bean and sprout vegetables) Soy beans are the main ingredient for the production of tofu.

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