9 surprising health benefits of edamame

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

You may have seen a food called “edamame” popping up on Asian-styled restaurant menus and in the frozen food section of your grocery store but wondered exactly what they are. Or, you may have already been snacking on these delicious green pods with no idea just how beneficial they might be to your health.

Regardless of how familiar you are with edamame, what you may not have realized is just how nutritious these little green beans are! There are countless health benefits of edamame, and nutrition scientists are discovering even more every day as they research the tasty snacks. Edamame are particularly healthy when considered as an alternative to snacking on junk food.

So set down that bag of potato chips, or forego ordering that appetizer of spring rolls, and consider a healthy steamed bowl of lightly salted edamame instead. You can also start including shelled edamame in healthy home recipes to give them an intriguing but tasty twist. To learn more about edamame, its history as a snack and its health benefits, read on.

What are edamame

Edamame (pronounced ed-uh-mah-mey) are green, immature soybeans, usually served still in the pod after being boiled in lightly salted water. Diners can pop edamame out of their pods and into their mouth, in a similar style to eating popcorn. In America, boiled edamame in their pods are often served with an additional pinch of salt sprinkled on top.

Pre-shelled edamame are also sold, typically in frozen bags for use in other dishes. Edamame differ from mature soybeans, which usually have a rounder shape and a brown or golden hue. Unlike mature soybeans, edamame have a soft texture and a quicker cooking time. Mature soybeans must usually be processed or fermented prior to eating.

As you may have guessed from the name, edamame originate from Japan. The name in Japanese (枝豆) literally translates to “stem bean” because the pods were once usually sold still attached to a stem, maximizing the appearance of freshness. Edamame became a popular snack in the early 20th century as “izakaya” sake bars started serving them to customers, just like American bars often provide peanuts [1].

In America, the popularity of edamame first took hold in California in the mid 1980s as patrons in places like San Francisco grew to love sushi [2]. By the late 90s, frozen versions began to appear in grocery stores all across the country. Now, the snack has spread beyond Japanese-style restaurants to be included in all manner of asian fusion restaurants and fashionable eateries.

The popularity of edamame has only grown over time. There are likely two main reasons for this trend. Firstly, farmers grow large volumes of soybeans as both a feed crop for livestock and as a rotation crop that puts nutrients back in the soil after growing corn or wheat [3]. The leguminous nodules of soybean roots put nitrogen back in the soil along with other important nutrients. Growing soybeans in-between crops like corn can also reduce the amount of weeds or pests seen the next year.

Secondly, edamame are healthy! They are simply packed with nutrition, offering as much protein as a cut of chicken breast and as much fiber as four slices of whole wheat bread. Anyone who wants to know more about what a heaping helping of edamame offers can read on to learn more about the 9 biggest health benefits of edamame.

1. Low-fat alternative snack

A half cup (2.08 oz) of shelled edamame only has 120 calories and 2.5 grams of fat [4]. Compare that to an equivalent serving by weight of potato chips, which can have 320 calories and 20 grams of fat [5]. Most of the fat in edamame is “good fat,” too, including 1.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat and 0.3 grams of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.

Research shows that restricting your fat intake to 25 to 35 percent of total calories consumed and avoiding saturated fats can lower your levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol [6]. Eating plant-based ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) omega-3 fatty acids can also help reduce your risk of heart disease while lowering your body’s inflammation response, which can help manage symptoms of asthma and other chronic conditions [7].

2. High in protein

For a plant, edamame is shockingly high in protein! A half-cup serving has an astounding 11 grams of protein [4]. Since protein is needed to create amino acids, boost immunity and ensure proper functioning of your body, adding edamame to your diet can have impactful benefits, especially if you have a meat-restricted or vegan diet.

Even better, soybeans are one of the few sources of “complete” proteins, meaning they deliver all of the essential amino acids our bodies cannot produce on their own [8]. Typically, one would have to eat several types of fish, poultry and plants to ingest a full protein source. While you should still have a balanced diet, adding edamame to it can help you get more of the proteins you need!

3. Rich with vitamins, minerals and fiber

Each edamame bean is packed with nutrition! A 1/2 portion supplies 9 grams of dietary fiber, aiding in digestion and helping you feel fuller on fewer calories [4]. Additionally, a 3.5 ounce serving can satisfy the following portions [8] of your recommended daily intake for important nutrients and minerals like:

  • Iron — 13%
  • Riboflavin — 9%
  • Thiamine — 13%
  • Copper — 17%
  • Manganese — 51%
  • Folate — 78%
  • Vitamin K1 — 33%

That much nutrition means that a 1/2 cup of shelled edamame has as much iron in it as a four ounce piece of cooked chicken breast [4]. 1/2 cup of shelled edamame also offers 10 percent of your daily recommended value of vitamin A and vitamin C, two key antioxidants that help boost immunity and promote healthy functioning.

4. Can control blood sugar and help manage diabetes

Those struggling with diabetes or complications from obesity often have trouble managing their blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, many of the foods we tend to crave are high in refined sugar or simple carbohydrates, which are quickly broken down into sugar. However, edamame and other beans happen to be low in simple carbohydrates but high in dietary fiber and protein [9].

In other words, eating edamame can help you feel full without causing your blood sugar levels to spike! Additionally, soy proteins have been shown to help reduce insulin resistance as well as kidney damage and conditions related to a fatty liver in those with diabetes [4], helping them manage their condition and reduce their risk of complications.

5. May help manage menopause symptoms

At around 51 years old, women stop menstruating and often face adverse symptoms associated with hormone imbalances. These symptoms include mood swings, unexplained sweating and hot flashes, the feeling that the body’s temperature has quickly risen. Many studies link these symptoms to irregular estrogen levels and a lack of a related compound called equal [8].

Research shows that edamame may have significant levels of a compound called isoflavones that help the body’s natural gut bacteria produce equol. The result is a better-regulated balance of estrogen, possibly reducing the likelihood of menopause-related symptoms like hot flashes. In fact, research published in Menopause magazine connected phytoestrogens like soy isoflavones with lower frequency and severity of hot flashes in postmenopausal women [6].

6. May reduce risk of certain cancers

Abnormal estrogen levels are associated with an increased risk in certain types of cancer. These cancers include breast, prostate and uterine cancer [6]. Once again, isoflavones are thought to have a positive role in replacing estrogen in order to reduce these cancers [8]. At least one study indicates that compounds found in soybeans could help reduce the size of tumors and may even slow tumor growth [10].

One of the most promising connections between soy products and cancer reduction lies in the power to possibly reduce prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the second most-common type of cancer found in men, affecting one in seven at some point in their life [8]. Observational studies show that mean who regularly consume soy products have a 30 percent lower risk of prostate cancer, making edamame a promising addition to men’s diets.

Additionally, antioxidants have been shown to help reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Vitamin C, for instance, helps the body fight off infection and reduce allergic responses. Vitamin A similarly helps boost the body’s immune response while preventing macular degeneration — worsening eyesight — in old age. Edamame has high concentrations of both Vitamin C and A.

7. May help reduce bone loss

Osteoporosis is a condition marked by demineralization of the bones, causing bone loss and weakening of the bones overall. Older adults in particular tend to develop osteoporosis as they age. Complications include a higher frequency of broken bones, back pain and issues with posture and mobility. Postmenopausal women in particular struggle with osteoporosis [11].

Certain studies show that eating soy proteins can help postmenopausal women lower their risk of osteoporosis [8]. The secret lies in isoflavones, which can not only help reduce bone loss but may even improve bone density. Because products like edamame are rich in isoflavones, eating edamame regularly could help postmenopausal women and older adults manage their osteoporosis.

8. Boosted immunity and overall health

Stronger immune system is another one of great health benefits of edamame.

One of the biggest root causes of disease is a lack of nutrition. Without minerals like copper in our diet, our immune systems cannot function properly, making it harder to stay healthy and avoid diseases [12]. Other vital minerals our body needs include riboflavin, or vitamin B2, which can prevent migraines, and the aforementioned vitamins A and C.

9. Improved digestion

Dietary fiber is a necessary component of proper digestion, but too few people get their daily recommended dose of 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. Adding fruits and vegetables in place of processed foods can help improve fiber intake, meaning that many Americans need to start substituting their snacks.

Edamame is a perfect snack substitute for upping your daily intake of dietary fiber! As mentioned above, a 1/2 cup serving of shelled edamame adds 9 grams of dietary fiber. This amount is equivalent to eating four cups of steamed zucchini or four slices of whole wheat bread [4]. Since many substances found in processed foods tend to make bowel movements more difficult [13], substituting these items with edamame can improve digestion overall.

Recommendations for eating edamame

The most common method of eating edamame likely offers the most nutrition. Preparing foods through short boiling durations tends to destroy less of the nutritious compounds compared to longer, higher heat methods like roasting. Therefore, lightly boiled and lightly salted edamame may offer the best nutrition compared to roasting or cooking in oil.

Traditionally, edamame are boiled in their pods in a lightly salted solution. This preparation makes the final sodium count just 9 mg per cup. Since consumption of soy products can be connected with thyroid issues in certain patients [14], using iodized salt is highly recommended. You can add just a pinch of coarse salt onto the unshelled pods to add a bit more flavor.

Some recommend leaving edamame in their pods when consuming them as a snack. This preparation makes you “work harder to get each soybean” [4], decreasing the amount you are likely to eat and actually helping you burn a minor amount of calories as you deshell. Shelled edamame reportedly have less flavor when served plain, likely because direct contact with boiling water pulls away many of the flavor compounds.

When using shelled edamame, ensure that they were flash frozen and made from a recent crop. Also, check the ingredients label to see if any preservatives or other unnecessary ingredients were added to the mixture. Ideally, your edamame will be as close to a raw bean as possible with minimal processing.

Some caution against eating GMO (genetically modified organism) edamame. Soybeans are one of the most heavily grown GMO crops, and producers tend to use far more pesticides when growing these modified varieties [15]. Nutritional and health studies on the effects of eating GMO foods are inconclusive. However, you may want to reduce consumption of GMO foods or avoid them entirely based on the environmental implications.

Note that the positive nutritional effects of edamame do not mean that they should be consumed heavily. Adding too much of any substance to your diet can have an adverse effect; always strive for balanced and varied nutrition. If you have a history of breast cancer, thyroid issues, or estrogen-related health complications, discuss your diet with your physician before making major adjustments.

Some sample edamame recipes

Edamame does not just have to be eaten out of the shell! While that may be one of the most nutritious ways to snack on the beneficial bean, shelled frozen edamame can add protein and a bit of plant bulk to nearly any dish. Try the following recipes if you want to add more edamame to your diet or your weekly recipe rotation:

  • Thai peanut chicken edamame quinoa stir fry — This delicious and filling dish from the ambitious kitchen mixes peanutty Thai flavors with fresh veggies and some frozen edamame. Best of all, quinoa means you can skip the rice [R]. 
  • Ginger wasabi edamame hummus — Hummus lovers can put a new twist on their chickpeas with blended edamame mixed with other delicious Japanese flavors. Works great as a snack or a party pleaser [R]. 

The Sati line

In sum, edamame is one of the most tasty, nutritious snacks you could ask for. Kids and picky adults can eat them like popcorn, helping fill them up without introducing harmful or nutrient-deficient processed foods into their diet. Because they are packed with beneficial fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and compounds like isoflavones, they offer far more than one might expect out of a delicious appetizer or added vegetable.

So go ahead and order edamame the next time you are out at a restaurant so that you can skip other, more unhealthy options. Or, you can buy a bag that lets you steam them yourself in just a minute in the microwave! Microwavable edamame make great after school snacks for kids, for instance. Boiling your own edamame is also easy, as is adding them to your favorite recipe!

Best of all, edamame dishes are crowd pleasers! You can bring them to a party and make up a fresh, hot batch quickly, or you can prepare your favorite dips using edamame as an ingredient. The possibilities are practically endless! Now you can start digging into your next bowl of tasty edamame knowing that it is not only a guilt-free snack but something you should feel good about eating.