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Popularity of edamame on the rise across the country

By DOUG GRAVES
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The common soybean is prevalent throughout this region. But one variety of soybean, edamame, is quickly gaining in popularity across the country.

Edamame (pronounced eh-dah-MAH-may) has been grown in Asian countries for thousands of years. Edamame is slightly larger than a typical soybean and is highly popular in Japan, China, Hawaii and Korea.

This emerging source of soy protein is making its way into grocery stores and plant catalogs.

Edamame is harvested at the peak of ripening right before it reaches the “hardening” time. In other words, it is harvested while green. In Asian countries edamame is consumed as a snack, a vegetable dish, used in soups or processed into sweets. As a snack, the pods are lightly boiled in salted water and then the seeds are squeezed directly from the pods.

“These green soybeans tend to taste sweeter and nuttier than the typical soybean,” said Sara McNulty, a grower from Owensboro, Ky. “I think the attractive part of edamame is that it tastes good and is easy to incorporate into dishes or diets.

“Edamame has health benefits. It’s a good food for diabetics because it helps to maintain blood sugar levels. And, edamame offers more health benefits than processed and refined forms of soy.”

McNulty was instrumental in the development of this specialty crop’s popularity in her area. Along with University of Kentucky (UK) extension educators, McNulty secured one of Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s first sustainable community innovation grants.

According to the USDA, the funds from this grant were applied to promoting edamame as a profitable crop with great health potential.

The already-identified health benefits of soy (low fat, high protein, low cholesterol) accelerated UK’s efforts to promote the nutritional benefits of edamame to heart patients and health care workers. Research also suggests that the isoflavones in edamame may reduce or ward off breast cancer in premenopausal women.

Those in Ohio are taking note of this beneficial plant. Researchers at The Ohio State University’s Piketon Research have tended test plots of the produce the past 10 years and a handful of state growers are currently testing edamame in their soils. Studies began with 10 edamame varieties in the field, with cross-breeding performed on 136 varieties in greenhouses.

“The purpose is to see how well edamame grows across the state, what kind of yields we get and how well the crop holds up to insects and diseases,” said OSU plant pathologist Sally Miller. “The next stop will be to see how well the markets take to the crop. Growing and marketing edamame on a local level is rare.”

Growing the produce could be highly profitable for those willing to invest. USDA reported that two-pound bundles (including stem and pods) of edamame sell for $3-$5 at markets.

There are a few drawbacks, McNulty said.

“Purchasing edamame at a fresh market is difficult because the beans deteriorate quickly,” she said. “One has to make sure it’s fresh at purchase, as the slightest yellow coloring will make it taste bitter. Another struggle is having new customers try the good-tasting bean.”

Researchers in Ohio and Kentucky agree that the increase in Asian population and the success farmers have with soybeans are two key indicators that edamame will take hold as a profitable crop.

11/11/2009