Soy: To Eat or Not to Eat by Silvia Milanova, November 13 2014, 0 Comments

If you have an intolerance to dairy (as I do), you must know how uncomfortable it can be to consume it when sometimes you “have no choice”. A lot of my favorite foods and beverages contain dairy—brownies, lattes, mashed potatoes, smoothies—you name it. So, a few years ago, instead of popping a Lactaid® pill every time I wanted to eat or drink dairy, I decided to find an alternative I liked. That’s when I started drinking soymilk. I had it with my coffee in the morning, I used it for cereal, I made mashed potatoes with it—I pretty much used it as a substitute in anything that required dairy.

Fast forward a few years later when I became very health conscious about our food supply and began to really clean up my diet. I cut out most processed foods that came in a box, started eating organic produce and poultry (I don’t eat red meat), and began growing my own herbs and some other vegetables. That’s when I also read an article about a man who began “growing breasts” and losing facial/body hair. Based on his and his doctor’s conclusion, it must’ve been because he consumed up to three quarts of soymilk a day. To help explain why this may have been their conclusion, you need to know that soybeans contain compounds called isoflavones. These are naturally occurring plant substances that behave similarly to the hormone estrogen. They are also sometimes called "weak estrogens". Since excess estrogen in men could potentially bring out more feminine characteristics, this would explain the theory behind this man's "breasts" and other body changes.

After reading that article, I immediately did some research about the negative effects of soy on the body and concluded that I should stop drinking soy milk. Luckily, I found many yummy alternatives—almond, hazelnut, and coconut milks (just to name a few).

I haven’t done much research on the topic since then, and I seldom consume soy milk now (except for the occasional Starbucks® soy latte). I also try to purchase fresh foods and limit my packaged food purchases. If I “must” buy something that comes in a box, I read the ingredients list to ensure that there’s no soy flour, oil, lecithin, or any other soybean byproduct. So, when I considered writing about this topic, I was ready to tell you all to stop eating and drinking soy-based products!

The fact is, if you open your cupboard and find a product that comes in a box, most likely one of the ingredients will be soy lecithin—used as a binding agent due to its high phytic acid content. The consumption of soy in the United States skyrocketed between 1996 and 2011. In 2011, about 3.06 billion bushels of soybeans were harvested from 73.6 million acres of cropland in the United States, according to the USDA. The US is also the largest producer and exporter of soybeans, “accounting for over 50% of the world's soybean production.” Soybean oil is also the number one edible oil in the US. Pretty much every part of the soybean and every byproduct is used for one purpose or another. And most grown soybeans in the US are actually used to feed livestock.

However, now that I’ve done a lot more research on the topic, the debate over soy’s health benefits or health woes is inconclusive. Most studies on either topic have been done on either mice and other animals or on human cells. But no human studies can confirm that either effects on human bodies are definite. Therefore, I am going to give you a few facts about the soybean, which is actually a legume, and let you decide if and what form of soy you should or should not consume.

Here are the facts:

  • Soy actually falls under two categories: fermented and unfermented. Examples of fermented soy products are miso, natto (Japanese food/dish), soy sauce and tempeh. Fermented means that the carbohydrates in the food have been turned into alcohols. Many other common foods are fermented—beer, bread, cheese, just to name a few. Examples of unfermented soy products include soy milk, tofu, soy burgers/nuts, soy baby formula, soy flour, soy ice cream, soy protein, etc. The thing is, fermenting the soy decreases or removes “the phytates from soybeans and may reduce the bioactive components,” according to the Soyfoods Association of North America. These phytates are causing most of the commotion around soy, since phytates can block the absorption of essential minerals in the body. These minerals include zinc and iodine. Read below for more on eating soy in moderation (and in its non-GMO, fermented form)
  • The issue with soy may not be whether or not you consumer it, but rather how much and what kind. In the US, in addition to fermented or unfermented soy products, you also have the choice of GMO (genetically modified) or non-GMO soybeans. However, since up to 90% (if not more) of US-grown soybeans are genetically engineered, you may actually not have much of a choice when purchasing products from a conventional store. The soy (in whichever form it makes its way on the ingredients list) is probably GMO. If you are serious about avoiding genetically engineered products, you will have to seek non-GMO or organic soy milk/flour/oil, etc. in a health food store or online
  • The American population is eating soybeans (and all parts of it) at levels higher than ever before in history. So, it’s important not to forget that everything is good in moderation, and not much is good in excess. If you’re worried about consuming too much soy, try to limit the sources from where you’re getting it. Instead of drinking soy milk, making soy protein shakes, cooking with soybean oil and flour, and eating lots of packaged foods, choose some alternatives to these products
  • Regardless of soy’s benefits or risks, consider feeding your baby regular formula if you’re unsure about soy formula. Since babies’ bodies are very small, any potential negative effects on the body will be magnified
  • Remember that there are some people out there, especially children, who are allergic to soy. So, read ingredients lists very carefully if you’re purchasing food or cooking for someone with a soy intolerance or allergy
  • Because of the isoflavones found in soybeans, some animal studies have tried to find a link between soy and a higher risk for breast cancer. Although women with other risk factors for breast cancer, or those who have already been diagnosed, should be very careful when consuming these compounds, the animal studies have also been inconclusive. This is because different species react differently to such substances and isoflavones' activity also varies by "tissue concentration, cell type, hormone receptor type, and stage of differentiation," according to the Environmental Health Perspectives