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WOOSTER, Ohio - Ohio State University researchers are hoping to turn the soybean into a vegetable crop.
Studying ways to provide farmers with new crops to raise and put extra cash in their pockets has led researchers down a path of growing and marketing edamame. Edamame (pronounced ed-ah-mah-may) is an edible soybean, originally from Asia, that can be produced just like a vegetable crop, such as beans or tomatoes, and can be grown in the field as well as in a garden.
Ron Fioritto, an OSU soybean breeder who started an edamame cross-breeding program last year, said the edible part of the plant is the bean, which is steamed or boiled in the pod, then extracted and eaten. "You can put the bean in salads, soups, stir fry or stews, or it can be eaten by itself," he said. "In Asia, it's served as a snack, like pretzels or peanuts. It tastes sweet and is more mild than traditional soybeans." OSU plant pathologist Sally Miller said edamame is a rare crop in the United States. "Aside from extensive research being conducted at Washington State University, growing and marketing edamame on a local level is rare," she said.
Researchers at the university's Centers at Piketon in Piketon and the Muck Crops Branch in Celeryville are in their first year of edamame test plots. A handful of state growers are also testing edamame on Ohio soils. "The purpose of the studies is to see how well edamame grows in the state, what kind of yields we get, and how well the crop holds up to insects and diseases, such as Phytophthora," said Miller. "Then the next step will be to see how well the markets take to the crop." Fioritto believes Ohio is a potential market for edamame because of the state's large Asian population and the success farmers have with growing field soybeans. "Edamame looks just like traditional soybean plants, but the pods are picked green," he said. "Also the edamame bean is much bigger than a traditional soybean and there are many varieties available at different maturity stages that allow growers to plant at different times during the season." Edamame is also more digestible than field soybeans and is highly nutritious. A bean contains about 40 percent protein, almost twice that of a lima bean, and is a good source of calcium and vitamins A and B. It is also thought that edamame has slightly higher protein levels than field soybeans and fetches a higher price for its oil.
Part of Fioritto's research is to produce an edamame variety that has high protein and oil levels but tastes good as well. Other research has shown that edamame beans with high protein levels contain less sugar and therefore lack a sweet flavor. Edamame beans with a high oil content are high in sugar but produce an unappealing "oily" flavor.
OSU researchers are studying 10 edamame varieties in the field and are cross-breeding 136 varieties in the greenhouse. "We want a product that is healthy and that people will like and utilize," said Fioritto.