Geneticist Thomas Devine and researchers from Virginia State University and the government-funded Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have found five breeds of soybeans with higher than average levels of sugar that would serve as parent lines.
"Making it sweeter provides an advantage for the US market," Donald Comis, public affairs specialist at ARS, told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"At the moment, farmers here are not growing the edamame soybean. It is only being imported from Asian countries where it is a standard ingredient and snack. Introducing new varieties helps compete against importers."
Edamame refers to large, edible vegetable soybeans that are harvested before ripening. They are boiled then slipped out of their pods and can be eaten on their own or added to salads, stir-frys, soups and casseroles.
They are popular in Asia but are becoming increasingly popular in America as a healthy snack or ingredient with the globalization of food tastes and trends. Increasing the sweetness makes it more suitable to the Western palate.
Currently, soybeans in the US are grown for processing as an ingredient in products such as dairy-alternative foods and beverages. They are also grown for animal feed. The researchers hope to encourage farmers to grow edamame soybean to meet the growing consumer trend for healthy food and foreign cuisine.
Devine has aimed his work at the organic market. Comis said: "Devine has personally been trying to work with organic farmers and has researched soybeans that suit the sector. Also, consumers after a healthy diet would want a product that is organic."
ARS is the chief scientific research agency for the US Department of Agriculture. The researchers found the lines of sweeter soybeans by screening plants in an ARS collection in Illinois.
Devine has spent more than two decades breeding giant soybean plants for livestock forage, and has now developed a giant variety of edamame called Moon Cake that is between five and six feet tall.
The giant size of the plant means that it can shade out and compete over weeds, meaning there is no need for herbicides.
It is in the process of being licensed to Epic Gardens, a small business that researches sustainable practices, develops markets for specialty crops and sells open-pollinated seeds.
Devine eventually hopes to breed a giant edamame that is also sweeter.
Soy is a source of vitamins B1, B2, B6 and E as well as minerals. It contains isoflavones, which have been found to have some cancer-preventing qualities. Scientific research linking soy consumption to low cholesterol and lower incidence of osteoporosis has further increased consumer demand.
Volumes of soy beverages consumed in North America, Western Europe and Japan have more than double since 2002, according to Zenith International.