Should you fear soy?

Over the past several decades, people in Western countries had a very conflicted relationship with soy. In the late 20th century, it was touted as a miracle health food that prevented heart disease. At that time, soy foods were a novelty. Soy milk hadn’t taken over the dairy case. The most visible use of soy was for non-dairy infant formulas.

A few years later the tide turned. Research showed that some types of breast cancer cells were stimulated by estrogenic molecules. Soy naturally contains isoflavones, which are estrogen-like molecules, so people leapt to the conclusion that soy caused breast cancer. At the same time, some people claimed that these same estrogenic soy isoflavones would alleviate symptoms of menopause. Go figure. Keep in mind, a lot of the positive spin was generated by soybean trade associations.

Meanwhile people in Asian countries have been eating soy foods for centuries with no apparent ill effects. Tofu, tempeh, natto, soy sauce and miso are widely consumed through Eastern Asia. If soy is that dangerous, we’d expect astronomical rates of breast cancer and other estrogen/hormone-related medical problems.

Soy hysteria in the West is driven in part by the belief that “soy is in everything”. The truth is, while soy-derived food ingredients like flavoring agents or fillers might be in many processed foods, soy is not in everything. For the most part, the only way to consume significant and meaningful amounts of soy is to choose soy foods:

  • Soy Milk
  • Soy cheese, yogurt, frozen desserts or other dairy alternatives
  • Soy formula (infants)
  • Soy protein powders
  • Meal and energy bars with soy protein
  • Edamame
  • Soy nuts
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Natto
  • Soy sauce
  • Soy flour or soy meal in foods like cereals or bread
  • Soy beans
  • Other soy-based foods
  • Fake meat

If you’d rather avoid soy, it’s pretty easy to avoid these foods and ingredients. Most breads and cereals do not contain soy. If you’re concerned, check the ingredients’ list.

Now soy phobia is back on the radar screen thanks to all the hype about plant-based diets and fake meat. Most of these fake meat products rely heavily on soy protein isolates for texture and protein content. Unlike whole soy beans or foods like tempeh or tofu, soy protein isolates are highly processed and concentrated forms of soy protein. The fiber, carbohydrates and fat are processed out of soybeans, leaving a high protein concentrate that can be added to foods.

The ongoing health concern is the possible concentration of the phytoestrogen isoflavones. If you search on “soy protein isolates”, you come up with articles using phrases like “what are the dangers?”, “good or bad?”, “is it healthy”, “Dangers of soy”, “dirty little secret” and so forth. Just reading the headlines is enough to make you worried. Yet research indicates the fear of vastly overblown.

Nutrition

Whole soy foods are high protein, and depending on the food, may be a significant source of fiber; minerals like magnesium, iron, zinc and potassium; and certain B vitamins.

Soy protein isolate is high protein, but many of the other nutrients have been removed or drastically reduced.

Is Soy Phobia a Valid Concern?

There really isn’t a lot of evidence that soy is dangerous or even a little unhealthy. Certainly whole soy foods have been around for a very long time. If they were unhealthy, Eastern Asia would have been depopulated centuries ago as people keeled over from eating soy foods. So let’s get over that myth.

Is soy healthy? It might have some health benefits, but so far research doesn’t indicate that soy is some universal wonder food. Including soy milk or tofu in your diet doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid heart disease or menopause symptoms.

My preference is always whole foods. I eat tofu on a pretty regular basis, and I’ve added tempeh to my food repertoire. I’m absolutely not interested in highly processed fake meat or soy protein powders. My recommendation is, if you want to include soy in your diet, use whole foods. If you’d rather avoid soy, avoid the obvious sources and read labels to avoid hidden sources. It’s really pretty easy to do.