The health status of Soy as a food item has become the subject of fantastic debate. There are vegetarian soy advocates who extol the benefits of eating soy, sometimes to the point of disbelief, and there are the soy fear mongers, would be prophets of doom, scaring us away. Whats the truth? Here is where we sort out the facts.
Tofu is a food product made from coagulated soy-milk. The curd is then pressed into soft blocks. Tofu is soy.
Soy (and tofu) is often used as a source of protein in a variety of “vegetarian-meat” recipes as well as in desserts, soups, smoothies, as soy milk, imitation cheeses and more. It is quite versatile.
However, research has consistently shown that soy is decidedly not friendly to the human body. Not in it’s natural state, and especially not in the highly processed state that soy is typically served in.
The mistake in thought that leads us to believe soy is healthy has three main roots:
Mistake # 1
Since soy is a natural food crop; A raw food; A bean that grows from the ground; it must be healthy.
Consider that sugar is also natural. Salt is natural too. They both come from the ground. But we know that these are not healthy foods and should be consumed only in great moderation.
Soy is just another natural food that has highly intolerable properties for the human body. This will be discussed in more detail later on.
Soy is very prevalent, it’s all around us and in so much of our food that we have come to believe that it should be there.
Due to the soybean being one of three native crops in the US which are very highly subsidized and grown, soy is over- promoted and marketed to the American public.
Second only to corn, soybeans are the most government subsidized crop in the United States (wheat is behind soy at number three). Because it’s so highly subsidized soybeans are a crop that is actually overgrown in the US. One of many results of the soy surplus is that soy has become a food crop whose use is encouraged by the USDA particularly in its Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
In extremely moderate amounts, soy would not necessarily be problematic for most people. However soy is so prevalent and available, and manufacturers have devised ways to use soy in so many applications, that it is typically over-consumed even for persons who are not “into” soy.
As a result, the amount of soy in the standard American diet is easily problematic even for those whose body would otherwise tolerate it relatively well.
Worse still are the methods and processes used to make soy useful in it’s many applications. The over-processing that soy goes through adds many other external problems and issues to this already problematic food item. This too will be discussed in more detail later on.
Asians eat vast amounts of soy. We have been sold the idea that Asians eat a diet very high in soy and tofu and live really healthy lives until very old ages as a result of it. This is a wild piece of fiction.
In Asia, soy that has not been fermented, the soy that we eat in the west (tofu and the like), has been used as animal fodder for thousands of years. In actuality, the average consumption of this type of soy by Asians is a fraction of what we eat. What Asians consume on a regular basis is “fermented soy.”
In fact, the soybean did not serve as a food in China until the discovery of fermentation techniques (during the Chou Dynasty). The Chinese did not eat un-fermented soybeans as they did other legumes such as lentils because the soy bean contains large quantities of what they believed to be natural toxins or “anti-nutrients.”
Soy that has been fermented is vastly different than non-fermented soy and is, in fact, the healthy soy we should be eating. Fermentedsoy actually is quite good for you.
Fermentation adds benefits to food in general. These benefits include pro-biotic bacteria (e.g. acidophilus), higher amounts of vitamins and minerals, and it makes food easier for the body to digest.
Common fermented products are yogurt and kefir, saurkraut and kimchi, many cheeses, some breads, pickles and vinegar.
Fermentation, while releasing the nutrients in the soybean also eliminates the problems associated with soy as a food. This will be detailed later. (Soy milk, tofu and soy cheese, are not fermented products).
Soy products that are healthy are fermented. The main types of fermented soy are; Miso, Natto, Tempeh, and Soy Sauce. (With soy sauce watch out for artificial ingredients and added MSG.)
Fermented soy products, mainly Miso, Natto, and Tempeh are high in protein and are very healthy. These have no negative or unwanted side effects and they are certainly suitable for vegetarians and vegans.[Other high-protein sources for vegetarians: Fish, eggs and dairy.
Other high protein sources for vegans: First lentils, beans in general (not soybean), oat-bran, broccoli and cauliflower, asparagus, peanuts, avocados…]
Simply put, when we realize that unfermented soy is already in a surprisingly wide range of the processed foods that we eat, then in order to keep our soy intake at a healthy level, or at least non-detrimental, we have little choice but to electively eat soy products in great moderation only.
As will be discussed next, high or even moderate amounts of (non-fermented) soy in the diet can be the source of numerous health complications. Some of which are major issues.
Let’s point out though that the issues associated with soy lie mainly with people who use soy as their principal source of protein. Some people view soy as a kind-of wonder-protein, the answer to nearly all food neads, indeed how it is often promoted by soy food-product makers in; soy milk, soy- patties, soy burgers, tofu patties, tofu slabs, scrambled tofu, tofu stir fry, soy cheeses, soy cereals, soy snacks, soy deserts etc. These people consume soy in more than moderation and are the ones who need to be concerned.
For those who use non-fermented soy as an occasional treat, a few of cubes of tofu at a party or restaurant, in a desert here or there, aren’t typically in any need of concern. In very moderate use most people shouldn’t realize any harmful effects at all.
The issues with Soy
Topping the list of the many issues associated with eating non-fermented soy are:
1) Soy is a phyto-estrogen –
A plant estrogen. This means that consuming soy significantly enhances the body’s estrogen levels.
Estrogen is a hormone that has a pivotal role in the bodies of both men and women. It is important for cognitive function, fertility, and many of the changes in gene activity that take place in the body.
Estrogen levels that are too high can wreak havoc with our hormones. For women this can set off cycle irregularities and be the cause of weight gain, headaches, bad temper, chronic fatigue, and loss of libido.
For men it can lead to loss of muscle mass, enlarged breasts, lower libido and can be a precursor to atherosclerosis and arterial diseases.
For both men and women too much estrogen can lead to more serious problems as well.
2) Soy is a goitrogen –
It is a food that is damaging to the thyroid gland. It inhibits thyroid function.
The thyroid gland directly affects our daily energy. It regulates the body’s rate of metabolism and affects the growth and rate of function of many other systems in the body. The hormones produced by the thyroid gland, T3 and T4, play an important role in the maintenance of normal blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tone, digestion and reproductive functions.
3) Soy is a trypsin inhibitor –
Trypsin is a digestive enzyme produced in the pancreas.
There are numerous enzymes that allow us to digest our food and then absorb nutrients from the digested food. Trypsin is the enzyme responsible for and required by the body to digest protein.
4) Soy contains phytic acid –
A naturally occurring acid in some grains and legumes.
Phytic acid is often considered an anti-nutrient because it is a fiber that impairs the absorption of minerals. It will interfere with and disrupt the body’s ability to absorb calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
5) Soy is a techno-product overkill –
The methods used to make soy protein products add problems to this already troubling food item.
“-Production of modern soy protein products takes place in industrial factories where a slurry of soy beans is first mixed with an alkaline solution to remove fiber, then precipitated and separated using an acid wash, and finally, neutralized in an alkaline solution.
Acid washing in aluminum tanks leaches high levels of aluminum into the final product. The resulting curds are spray-dried at high temperatures to produce a high-protein powder.
A final negative process to the soybean is high-temperature, high-pressure extrusion processing of soy protein isolate (SPI) to produce textured vegetable protein (TVP).
High-temperature processing has the unfortunate side-effect of so denaturing the other proteins in soy that they are rendered largely ineffective.
Nitrites, which are potent carcinogens, are formed during spray-drying, and a toxin called lysinoalanine is formed during alkaline processing.
Numerous artificial flavorings, particularly MSG, are also added to soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein products to mask their strong “beany” taste and to impart the flavor of meat.-“
“Soy Protein Isolate (SPI),” “Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)” and “Hydrolized Vegetable Protein” are key words to look out for on ingredient panels. Avoid products that use these techno-produced soy items.
6) Soy is a GMO –
Genetically Modified Organism. Most soy products are made with soy crops that were modified at the gene level. It’s actually very hard to find soy that is not a GMO.
–Genetically modified soybeans are called ‘Roundup Ready.’ They are inserted with a bacterial gene, which allows the plants to survive a normally deadly dose of [the herbicide] Roundup. Although the spray doesn’t kill the plant, its active ingredient called glyphosate does accumulate in the beans themselves, which are consumed by [..] livestock and by humans. There is so much glyphosate in GM soybeans that when they were introduced, Europe had to increase their allowable residue levels 200 times [in order for the crop not to be in violation].-
Toxic to Mother and Child- Glyphosate throws off the delicate hormonal balance that governs the whole reproductive cycle. It is also toxic to the placenta, the organ which connects the mother to the fetus, provides nutrients and oxygen, and empts waste products.
In a 2009 French study at the University of Caen, scientists discovered that glyphosate can kill the cells in the outer layer of the human placenta (the trophoblast membrane), which in turn can kill the placenta.
-The placenta cells are, in Ewen’s words, “exquisitely sensitive to glyphosate.” Only 1/500th the amount needed to kill weeds was able to kill the cells. The amount is so small, according to the study authors that the “residual levels to be expected [to be present], especially in food and feed derived from R[oundup] formulation-treated crops” could be enough to “cause cell damage and even [cell] death.” Furthermore, the effect of the toxin may bioaccumulate, growing worse with repeated consumption from Roundup laden foods.-
-In a Canadian epidemiological study which looked at nearly 4,000 pregnancies in 1,898 couples, women exposed to glyphosate during the three months before getting pregnant had a significantly higher risk of miscarriage, especially for those above 34 years of age.-
In the Canadian study above, even fathers who were exposed to glyphosate before their wives got pregnant showed an increase in early delivery and miscarriages.
7) Soy is not for babies –
Most concerning is the notion that soy is good for babies, for children, or for use in infant formulas.
An overwhelming number of published studies, confirmed by Dr. Mike Shelby director of CFSAN (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition), have concluded that soy repeatedly jeopardizes developmental health.
In 2002, researcher Retha Newbold of NIEHS (the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) expressed concern when her colleagues demonstrated that soy genistein (a soy estrogen) “triggers reproductive abnormalities… including a rare form of cancer called uterine adenocarcinoma.”
Something that is toxic to the reproductive tract is toxic to multiple hormone systems throughout the body and brain as well.
Thyroid alterations are among the most frequently encountered autoimmune conditions in children. Research at Cornell University shows that -in children with autoimmune-thyroid disease the amount of feeding of soy-based formula in the first stages of life was significantly higher .- In a previous study, they found that twice as many diabetic children had received soy formula in infancy as compared to non-diabetic children.
The maternal consumption of soy products transfers estrogenic hormone disruptors to her fetus, and again to her child while breast-feeding. The amount of phytoestrogens in one days dose of soy infant formula is the same amount that’s in five birth control pills.
Multiple studies conclude soy phyto-toxic causation of an assortment of severe, painful and often irreversible neurological and physiological disorders, and these diseases are more often caused during developmental exposures [to soy].
Soy phyto-estrogens also abnormally manipulate ER-alpha and ER-beta hormone systems disrupting extensive endocrine systems throughout the entire body and brain.
The negative effects of soy on the endocrine system are trans-generational, passing damaging endocrine disruptor effects from parent to child.
The FDA’s Poisonous Plant Database includes “Soy bean, genistein and daidzein [soy estrogens]” on its list of poisonous plants. Developmental exposures to soy estrogenic endocrine disruptors fail to meet several FDA codes and regulations.
Soy infant formulas also contain high amounts of corn syrup and sugar, known to be developmentally debilitating. High levels of corn syrup and sugar can lead to pancreatic damage which interrupts insulin production then leading to infant and childhood diabetes type 1 and type 2. High levels of sweeteners also damage the thyroid and thymus glands.
8) Soy and the Genistein myth –
Genistein is an organic compound providing phyto-estrogens and showing some anti-oxidant effect, but the benefits of genistein come at a high cost.
Women have been encouraged to use high genistein soy products to alleviate symptoms of menopause and as a guard against bone loss and breast cancer. But given the full range of effects of genistein in the body, high consumption could result in age-related memory loss. Commercial soybean products offer genistein levels as high as 20 to 60 mg per serving.
Because their incidence of breast cancer and osteoporosis is low, Asians are used as an example of the benefits of eating soybean products. However, the Asian diet of ‘fermented‘ soybean products such as miso and tempeh includes only around 5 mg of genistein a day.
Genistein slows the growth of blood vessels serving tumors, another action that makes it popular as a cancer fighter. However, it has this same effect on blood vessels serving normal cells. Eating a regular diet high in genistein could result in the starvation of healthy blood vessels, resulting in a reduced supply of oxygen to cells, thus setting up a cancer promoting situation.
In a graphic example of how genistein slows cellular energy, a study found that eating high levels of it slowed hair growth by 60 to 80 percent.
A decade ago a study of 8,000 Asian men showed that those consuming the highest amounts of tofu had smaller brain size and nearly three times the rate of senile dementia as those who ate the lowest amounts. These results suggest that eating foods high in isoflavones such as soy protein isolates may accelerate the aging of the brain.-
9) Soy; the Money machine –
Soy production and sales is a four billion dollar industry in the US. Hence, the public relations hype extolling the virtues of soy have been global and relentless. There are at least 100 million acres of soy under cultivation in the United States alone, most of it genetically engineered.
The Monsanto Corporation itself has 45 million acres of genetically modified soybeans growing in the United States. American law permits these crops to be mixed with a small amount of organic soybeans, and the resultant combination may then be labeled organic.
–There is a distinct herd instinct among people who ‘work in science’ which makes it easy to believe whatever sounds plausible, if a lot of other people are saying it is true. Sometimes powerful economic interests help people to change their beliefs. For example, two of the biggest industries in the world, the estrogen industry and the soy bean industry, spend vast amounts of money helping people to believe certain plausible-sounding things that help them sell their products.-
Conclusion: Though soy is promoted as a health food, the value of those claims are checked by a mountain of evidence and research detailing soy’s many problems. It seems wise to keep, elective, non-fermented soy intake low or very very moderate.
For good high protein vegetable sources refer to the list earlier in this article.
Rules of thumb for using soy:
- Fermented soy products like miso, natto and tempeh are very healthy. Have Lots of These!
- Techno-soy products like soy protein isolate, textured (and hydrolized) vegetable protein are unhealthy. Have None of These! (or, extremely few of them at the least.)
- Tofu and the like (e.g. soy milk, soy cheeses..) have all of the same negative properties of any non-fermented soy products. Although as far as processed soy products go they aren’t as techno-nasty as SPI or TVP. These are nonetheless not healthy. Eat very Moderate Amounts of These! Which means not as a total protein replacement nor as a daily staple.
- Give no non-fermented soy to infants, to small children, or to pregnant women. None! Even as a treat!!
As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” From this standpoint, of knowledge, we know what the realities are with regards to soy as a food. We now can eat soy products responsibly, making educated decisions as to which products to consume and which not. Or, which to have in moderation and which to have on occasion.