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Feb. 8, 2000

Edamame snacking: Soy to the world

By Maria Puente, USA TODAY

America's legions of health nuts on the prowl for the perfect snack food - tastes great, won't kill you - have uncovered an exotic candidate: edamame.

That's ed-ah-MAH-may, Japanese for soybean. In Asia, they're the finger-food equivalent of peanuts and said to be just as addictive. Over there, you can find the furry green pods in restaurants and bars, piled in bowls on the tables. They're salted, boiled and served at room temperature; diners suck the savory beans from the pods.

Definitely a far cry from your typical fatty potato chip, but consider this: Soybeans are good for you, the Food and Drug Administration says, and may help fight heart disease and cancer. Try saying that about a chip.

In fact, all things soy are hot among American food producers. Roasted soybeans have been available for years; edamame might be the next item to break out from trendy Asian restaurants and sushi bars on the two coasts and make its way through the USA.

Sunrich of Hope, Minn., the leading producer of soybeans, sells about 2 million pounds of edamame per year and can barely keep up with an annual 25% increase in demand, executive Kate Leavitt says.

"Given the health benefits and that they're more available in restaurants and in frozen, ready-to-eat packages - and the fact that more people seem willing to try them - I think we're at the beginning of the ramp-up in popularity," Leavitt says.

Trader Joe's, a national chain of specialty grocery stores, began carrying frozen edamame a year ago; now some stores report they're selling better than frozen corn. Many Fresh Fields, another gourmet supermarket, stock them as produce.

Big-time media are paying attention: The New York Times called soybeans in the pod "the world's easiest hors d'oeuvre." Harper's Bazaar has two pages on soybeans in its February issue.

"Right now they're very popular with niche communities in the U.S., but sometimes ethnic foods become popular with a broader audience," says Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association in Washington, D.C. "Plantain chips were big with the Cubans in Florida, and now they're all over."

And who knew about tortilla chips and salsa 25 years ago?

But Nancy Chapman, director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, is skeptical about edamame's appeal beyond the 25% to 35% of the population that is health-conscious.

"American snack-food desires are for things that are processed, high in fat and salt, and don't have a natural flavor," she says. Still, there's room for continued growth: "I see (edamame) going mainstream in salad bars."

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