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Sound Consumer | March 2002

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Soy: saint or sinner?

Co-op member Candace Chamlee sums up the soy confusion experienced by many consumers. She writes: "For health and ethical reasons . . . I began to eat substantially more soy-based products. I was alarmed to have a friend tell me that soy is potentially a dangerous food source. I've found arguments for and against soy. Can you shed a little light on this topic for me?" I'll try, Candace, but it's a toughie!

For perspective, let's all remember that the soybean is, after all, just a humble, earth-grown legume. For at least 4,000 years, the simple soybean has been serving humankind. We have eaten soy, fed it to our animals, and valued it as a rotation plant for other crops such as vegetables or grains.

Soy's roots fix nitrogen in the soil, lessening the need for other nitrogenous fertilizer. Soy has been integral to the agriculture and food base of Korea, Japan, China and Indonesia for centuries. Traditional forms of Asian soy foods, which are quite commonplace now in the United States, include fresh or frozen beans from the soy pod (called sweet beans, or edamame), soy milk, bean curd or tofu, and several fermented foods such as shoyu or tamari soy sauce, miso paste and whole-bean tempeh.

Long before the concept of protein was recognized, soy was known as "the meat of the Orient." Today, we recognize that soy's unique balance of amino acids makes soy protein essentially equivalent to that of animal protein. In fact, the USDA now permits some soy foods as substitutes for meat protein in meal programs for children.

Twentieth-century food technologists began using soy oil for hydrogenated shortenings and margarines and soy lecithin. In the past decade or two, chemically extracted soy proteins ("soy protein isolates"), hydrolyzed soy proteins and textured soy have become widely used to fabricate "meat and cheese analogs." Soy hot dogs, luncheon meats, soy cheese, soy protein powders, power-drinks and many forms of soy supplements are being marketed for heart health, PMS and menstrual symptoms, protection against cancers and other targets.

But the real "buzz" surrounding soy has not been about the new foods created with soy, nor its protein content, but rather research into soy's compounds — especially plant hormones, or "phyto-estrogens." Genistein and isoflavones, a couple of those plant hormones, have tremendous implications for human health, researchers say.

But studies have come back with positive and negative findings. Many of the studies were performed on various animal species, and don't necessarily relate to human health or disease. In fact, the FDA thus far has allowed only one medical claim that manufacturers may use on labels: "25 grams/day of soy protein, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

The American Institute for Cancer Research (www.aicr.org) focuses on the role diet plays in cancer. AICR's position is that while numerous studies have shown that soy "contains several plant chemicals that also impede or prevent the development of cancer," it is too early to make firm recommendations since research is still inconclusive. They point out that the FDA statement about soy's possible health benefits relates only to heart health research. The AICR literature endorses a diet high in whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, low in processed foods, and low in animal products. AICR has a nice recipe for tofu stir-fry on their website, "for the tofu-timid."

Vitriolic and near-hysterical anti-soy articles have been floating around the Internet for a couple of years. The most frequently quoted opponents of soy are Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, of the Weston A. Price Foundation, at www.WestonAPrice.org. Although Falon and Enig occasionally raise some good questions (they call for more research into the safety of using soy in infant formula, for example), their strident and accusatory tone suggests a conspiracy theory — against soy farmers, the food industry, government regulators, food marketers, researchers and retailers. Their "all soy is poison" approach sets off red flashing lights — but those lights for me were not to recoil in horror from soy. Rather, I said, "Stop! Think. Read further. Talk to health advisers."

I recommend a carefully constructed rebuttal of every part of the Fallon and Enig diatribe, written by author John Robbins, at www.foodrevolution.org/what_about_soy.htm. Loma Linda University's website offers excellent professional research and advice at www.llu.edu/llu/vegetarian/soy2.html. For those with specific questions about soy and cancer, be sure to visit www.cancerrd.com/FAQs/FAQ19.htm. That site is filled with practical and cautious medical and nutritional information.

I advise you to avoid genetically altered soy products — which generally means you should buy only certified organic, because organic agriculture strictly prohibits the use of genetic engineering. Some manufacturers offer documentation that their non-organic soy is tested and is "GMO-free," but there is no independent verification of this available generally.

I also recommend that you stick mostly to the less processed, more traditional soy foods, and, unless advised by your health-care provider, resist using soy supplements. Just enjoy soy for the good bean it is — but enjoy other beans as well, since they have many of the same apparent benefits.

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