Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Health benefits of soy are not to everybody's taste

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TOKYO -- If you want to learn how to live longer, look at the people of Okinawa, a string of islands in southwestern Japan. Raised on a diet of fish and soybeans, their life expectancy is among the highest on Earth.

There is a natural control group; many Okinawans fled to Brazil and Hawaii after the Second World War, where they switched to a meatier diet of steaks and burgers. All have been studied regularly by Japanese researchers over the past three decades to prove a soy-rich diet can prolong life. Now it is time for the taste test: Can a healthy bag of soy nibbles sweep the fatty potato chip off the table?

Kaoru Yamada, a young food specialist at Otsuka Pharmaecutical, a Japanese drug company, has risen to the challenge. She dislikes the taste of soy, so she invented a lightly baked soy pastry that tastes of cheese, is crispy, has soybeans rattling inside it and can sit on a desk -- or even on a bar -- for months without going soggy. Called SoyCarat, her creation went on sale in Japan this month. Otsuka, which also produces a big-selling health drink called Pocari Sweat, sees it as part of a counteroffensive against western snacks that are making Asians fatter.

The science is compelling: Research, albeit partly sponsored by Otsuka, suggests eating soy protein quickly lowers blood pressure, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The company notes the average American eats less soy in a year than the average Japanese eats in a day. Otsuka is not alone in Japan in trying to use science to sell consumer products: For instance, Uniqlo, a clothing retailer, sells high-tech underwear it says makes sweat dry quicker.

But the marketing may be a problem. Sophisticated diners insist soy is scrumptious, but others vehemently disagree. Gary Larson, a cartoonist, once drew three disgusted lionesses spitting out the wobbly flesh of "a tofudebeest -- one of the Serengeti's obnoxious health antelopes." It struck a chord.

SoyCarat's brand name is tricky: Whatever the spelling, it evokes the idea of two things children shun and adults munch only reluctantly. Perhaps it should be portrayed as something laid back and Okinawan instead, like a bar snack. After all, what could be better than a life-enhancing glass of Orion beer in one hand and a life-extending bag of soy snacks in the other?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 A17

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