Americans eat a lot of edamame. 

Second only to the soybean in terms of soy products consumed, the edamame bean has enjoyed a surging popularity in recent years due in equal parts to taste and nutritional content. Just a half cup of edamame can significantly increase the amount of fiber, protein, and mineral content in your diet. 

The challenge with American’s edamame consumption is the fact that at least 70 percent is imported from China. But an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is out to change that. 

Powered by a newly funded $3.7 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the team is developing new cultivars of edamame best suited for growth in the United States. The nine-person team is collaborating across disciplines that include genetics, food science, bioinformatics, horticulture, entomology, plant pathology, and agricultural economics to help farmers develop a new source of revenue while sating America’s edamame cravings.

“This is a big issue that involves everything from creating new markets to developing a bean that is delicious and nutritious, so we wanted to collaborate to come up with the best solution,” said Bo Zhang, an assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the principal investigator on the project. 

One of the challenges of the current variety of edamame is that the size of the plant is too short for modern tractor combines to harvest. It also has a canopy that is too open for U.S. soils, which lets too many weeds grow between the plants. 

To address this, Zhang and others are developing a new variety that is taller and will work with existing combine equipment for harvest. The team is growing test crops at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm and the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center. 

Edamame consumers also like large beans, but current commercial soybean cultivars are too small for edamame market. Through the joint effort of Virginia Tech, University of Missouri, and University of Arkansas, the team has planted and harvested approximately 300 large-seeded exotic soybean plant varieties. They are being evaluated for agronomic traits, pod appearance, bean composition, sensory traits, and other characteristics for the selection of “parent” plant traits to develop improved edamame progeny. 

Once the crops are harvested, they are processed to stop plant enzymes from causing quality changes and tested to ensure the flavor, texture, and other characteristics are suited for the American palate. This testing is possibly through the university’s Department of Food Science and Technology pilot plant and sensory evaluation laboratories. 

“Finding the right edamame variety for success in the U.S. market means asking for consumer input early in the evaluation,” said Susan Duncan, a professor of food science and technology and assistant director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. 

Including consumer evaluation of bean characteristics during this early stage of variety selection allows the researchers to select varieties that show promise for success. The way consumers rate appearance, aroma, flavor, sweetness, and texture will be important in determining the plant varieties. Analysis of aroma chemistry and the amino acids in the protein structure also help verify the flavor quality and nutrition of the selected bean varieties.

“We know that in order for this project to be successful, we have to grow a product that is not only delicious, but also matches this traditional Asian food into the American preferences, so we are doing a robust series of tests to make sure Americans will love this variety of edamame,” said Duncan.

Meanwhile, agricultural economists will examine what the market for the product is, so that producers can take advantage of the new crop and maximize profits. 

Once the research is complete, the information will be shared with stakeholders and producers via Virginia Cooperative Extension. A series of workshops, outreach events, and other activities will help spread the word to have maximum impact.

“This is a great project where so many different people, with so many different viewpoints, are working together to benefit both American consumers and producers,” Duncan said.