I have recently received many questions about the nature of soy products and whether or not they are a good addition to a plant-based diet. With so many products on the market, ranging from soy milk to the infamous tofurkies, it is no wonder that people are confused. Is soy healthy?
Soy is the most marketed product targeting vegetarians and vegans today, and is backed by the largest food industrial companies known. These companies are intimately tied to the big giants such as Monsanto, the world’s leading company in pesticides and genetically modified foods manufacturing. Therefore, soy is now a food that is grossly over funded and therefore has become a mere commodity. With the company’s bottom line as the biggest motivation, soy has crept into our “health” market under false pretenses that pray on America’s fear of chronic disease and a lack of protein, and has successfully become an integral part of the vegetarian diet, despite its false claims and so-called health benefits.
Is soy healthy? No.
The truth is that soy is not a health food… well at least not in the way that the US manufactures it. And yes, the word is manufacture, not grow.
1. Genetically Modified
Right now almost every soy product that is purchased in the US is Genetically Modified. Genetically Modified foods are made by using a virus or bacteria to attack a cell thereby allowing the insertion of an artificial gene. Therefore, the DNA is engineered and altered, allowing the seed to grow into a new form of plant. A number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and even cancer. As for environmental impacts, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture will lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of all non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.
2. Anti Nutrients
Soybeans are high in phytic acid, an acid that is present in the bran or hulls of all seeds. Phytic acid is also termed the “anti nutrient” because it can block the uptake of essential minerals – calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc – in the intestinal tract. The soybean has one of the highest phytate levels of any grain or legume that has been studied and therefore puts you in risk of a mineral deficiency. Furthermore, soy foods contain trypsin inhibitors that inhibit protein digestion and affect pancreatic function.
3. A Small Dose of Birth Control?
Last but not least, there is the concern of soy’s phytoestrogen (isoflavones) content. Soy isoflavones are phyto-endocrine disrupters, meaning they mimic the body’s naturally occurring hormone functions. This is the biggest concern because soy has the ability to disrupt normal hormone balance. Soybeans contain the phytoestrogen, genistein, which has the ability to increase thyroid-stimulating hormone, and therefore interfere with normal hormone production and inhibit the intake of iodine (necessary for function and to prevent goiters). The thyroid gland is responsible for heart rate, balance blood pressure, maintain body temperature as well as a normal metabolic rate, which is responsible for converting food to energy, all which is disrupted by soy. Furthermore, genistein, has shown in studies to lead to a decline in fertility, ovulatory dysfunction and irregular menstrual cycles. According to a study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (April 31, 2011), “clearly demonstrate that environmentally relevant doses of genistein have significant impacts on ovarian differentiation, estrous cyclicity, and fertility.” A few consequences of an unbalanced hormone system are: prostate and breast cancer, early puberty, endometriosis and infertility, irregular and painful menstrual periods, handle bar and stomach weight gain, acne, and depression. Keep in mind, that the consumption of soy is not the only exposure that most people receive from estrogenic foods, or xeno estrogens. Dairy, animal meat, plastics and even personal care products also contain estrogen and estrogen-like substances that add to the imbalance.
What about Soy Consumption in Asia?
While traditionally soy is an integral part of Asian cuisine, this soy is far different than the soy that which is consumed in the US. For one, it is typically cultured, which changes the nutritional profile as the phytic acid is broken down. These would be foods like tempeh, Nama Shoyu and miso. Secondly, it is said that that the traditional average consumption of soy foods in Japan and China is 10 grams (about 2 teaspoons) per day, not the basis of most meals, snacks and beverages (this is most likely different in today’s modern world). Asians consume soy foods in small amounts as a condiment, and not as a replacement for animal foods. Finally, it is said that soy products in the US are processed in a way that denatures proteins and increases levels of carcinogens. In fact, one of the most common uses of soy is to make soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein (the typical basis of processed and packaged foods, especially vegan and vegetarian products), which creates free glutamic acid or MSG, a potent neurotoxin (excites your cell’s to death, literally).
The food industry also touts soy products for their cancer preventing properties. Isoflavone aglycones are anticarcinogenic substances found in traditionally fermented soybean products. However, in non-fermented soy products such as tofu and soy milk, these isoflavones are present in an altered form, as beta-glycoside conjugates, which have no anti-carcinogenic effect. Furthermore, the majority of soy products sold in today’s US market, are highly processed and have added preservatives and chemicals and even use the process of using hexane to extract the soy. Yes, hexane is what they use to make gasoline. I was even surprised to find companies such as Luna, Gardein, Morningstar, Silk, VitaSoy, WestSoy and Yves Cuisine use this technique. The main companies that did not use hexane extraction was Eden Foods, Small Planet Tofu, Farm Soy, Twin Oaks, Unisory, Wildwood and Organic Valley.
My philosophy is to stay away from soy products, especially if you are dealing with estrogen dominance or hormone imbalance. If you are not dealing with these issues, the occasional local, organic fermented miso, tempeh and Nama Shoyu is good. The fermented organic forms also have great benefits such as increasing healthy bacteria (probiotics) in the gut, which help to maintain and healthy immune system. Fortunately I have found some great local sources of these fermented soy products that I include in my diet a couple times a week, but I know that the soy does not come from the US, and is not GMO. As for other non-fermented processed soy products: soy deli meat, soy sausage , milk, yogurt, ice cream, burgers and other meat alternatives, I would advise finding healthier alternatives (the occasional organic tofu is okay). Besides does something called Tofurkey or Fakin’ Bacon really sound healthy?
I have worked with so many vegetarians and vegans that rely heavily on soy, and as a result deal with significant hormone imbalances. It is all to common to suffer from hormone imbalance, which manifests as stubborn weight gain, especially around the stomach and waist (handle bar or muffin top), PMS, mood swings, irregular periods, fatigue, hair loss and poor skin. Therefore, find other alternatives to replace that source of protein in your diet. There are many other options out there such as nuts and coconuts, which also can be made into milk, yogurt and cheese, and there is seeds, beans, and superfoods such as hemp, salba, nutritional yeast and brown rice protein powders. To learn more on how to make the change, read the article “Vegan Protein” and refer to my “Plant-Based Protein Chart.”
To research further, check out this great resource: http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert