An increasing number of people are favouring vegetable protein in their diets rather than relying solely on animal protein (meat, fish, eggs).

You can find vegetable protein in whole grains, beans, pulses, seeds and nuts.

Vegetarians should eat a mixture of cereals and pulses, as plant proteins have insufficient amounts of the essential amino acids necessary for growth and maintenance of healthy muscles and organs.

Soya beans are an exception to this rule. Called the "miracle bean" by the ancient Chinese, the quality of soy protein is equal to that of meat and milk, without the saturated fat and cholesterol.

Soya also contains a high level of beneficial fatty acids. Scientists at the US Department Of Agriculture have found the body can convert some of the soy plant fatty acids into seafood-type omega-3 fats which are known to combat heart disease and relieve inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.

The earliest records of the use of soya beans as food come from China around 1100 B.C. The Japanese have used them for nearly as long, starting from 500 B.C.

In China and Japan, the soy bean has always been highly respected and regarded as one of the five "sacred grains" (alongside rice, wheat, millet and barley).

Soya eventually found its way to Europe and America in the early 1800s.The reason why scientists are so excited about soya is that it contains high amounts of phyto (plant) oestrogens called isoflavones. One of these isoflavones, daidzein, appears capable of mimicking human oestrogen, thus alleviating PMS and menopausal symptoms.

Genistein, the other isoflavone compound found in soya, shows potent anti-cancer properties.

No wonder Japanese women, who traditionally consume high levels of isoflavones, have one sixth of our rate of breast cancer, until they move to the West and develop a breast cancer rate similar to ours!

Soya beans, like all beans, help regulate blood levels of insulin and blood sugar. This is valuable information not only for diabetics but anyone who wants to maintain stable energy levels throughout the day.

Soya also contains soluble fibre which binds to waste products, toxins and excess oestrogen or cholesterol, pulling these substances out of the body before they can be re-circulated.

Now that, after extolling its virtues, the golden soybean is an absolute must-have on your shopping list, how do you prepare and eat it?

Luckily, soya is hugely versatile and comes in all shapes and sizes from milk, sausages, nuggets and mince tomiso (fermented bean paste)and tofu (bean curd).

As demand for GM-free soya is high, some companies may not be able to maintain supplies .

If you are concerned, contact the manufacturers and ask them to confirm their products contain no genetically-modified ingredients or ingredients derived from GM-organisms.