Soy snack reveals new nutritious possibilities for India

Vijaya Jain couldn’t walk far in India without seeing a shop stocked with unhealthy treats, and as a nutritionist for the National Soybean Research Laboratory (NSRL), she found it unsettling.

The University Senior Nutrition Specialist was therefore ecstatic when Professors Soo-Yeun Lee and Youngsoo Lee of the University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition decided to make protein-rich soy into a kid-friendly snack for Indian students.

Jain and her colleagues connected theses treats to Akshaya Patra,a nonprofit group NSRL has worked with previously that provides midday meals to 1.3 million malnourished youngsters throughout India.

“I love the soy snacks,” Jain said about the Frito-colored, crunchy pieces. “I can’t stop eating them.”

Despite the fact that India is one of the world’s leading producers of soy, the country exports most of it.

Soo-Yeun and Youngsoo thought this was a tad counterproductive. They believed if they could just flavor the soy snacks to accommodate the Indian palate, soy might have a chance to battle protein deficiency there.

“The snacks have a little kick to them and don’t taste like soy,” said Bridget Owen, associate director of NSRL. “It is very important the snacks are flavored with Indian spices.”

In addition to soy, the recipe includes chickpea flour, cumin, pepper and Indian curry.

“We all have foods that we’re familiar with and that are tied to our families and traditions,” Owen said. “We don’t try to make foods taste different. We just look for ways to improve nutritional content.”

Several trial versions of the snacks were prepared and shipped off to Bangalore with former grad student Erica Neely for kids to taste. The most popular concoction was one with a fairly high inclusion of soy.

“A half-cup of snacks contains about five grams of protein,” Jain said. “That’s about the size of a serving scoop at the schools.”

Jain said soy is the ideal ingredient to slip into a mainly vegetarian Indian diet because it is extremely nutritious. It’s packed with protein, B vitamins, fiber, essential fatty acids and substances that may help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes.

“Diabetes is a growing challenge in India,” Owen said, “but the only way for these snacks to be unhealthy is to fry them, which unfortunately is a common practice there.”

Having traveled to India several times, Owen is always surprised by the smaller serving sizes compared to average American portions. She voluntarily served school lunch one day and gave kids more than they were used to eating.

“I was told I wasn’t allowed to serve anymore,” she said, laughingly. “The kids were just super sweet, and I wanted to keep feeding them.”

The next potential step for the soy snacks is to sell them through microenterprises (i.e. small businesses), which would be set up in India. NSRL already packages soy flour and textured soy protein for microenterprises in Central America and Southeast Asia to sell in small quantities.

Owen said many countries in the world will require a doubling of protein in the near future. Although this is a sign of progress because people are eating better, it is also a nearly impossible challenge to fulfill through more traditional animal proteins alone. NSRL believes soy is the answer because it is economically viable. It is inexpensive to produce, store and cook.

“There are so many benefits to using soy,” Owen said. “One of the most important is that it is completely sustainable.”