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The Soy Food Controversy

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There is currently a raging controversy over soy foods. Are they healthy or dangerous? There are recent published books and a number of websites criticizing soy, some going so far as to say it’s “poisonous” and “dangerous” to eat”. On the other side of the argument are results of thousands of studies spanning over 80 years and research in various countries, identifying benefits of soy foods. So what is the truth in this confusion? I get many questions from clients about soy, the most basic being should I eat it or not?

I don’t claim to have a pipeline to the truth on this. I just want to “weigh-in” with a researched opinion. I have been reviewing this question for years now and I find the evidence for soy to be overwhelmingly positive. Soy foods have been found to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, support weight loss, protect against the development of plaque buildup in the arteries, prevent some cancer cell growth, improve cognition and reduce menopausal symptoms. Also, soy provides a non-animal based alternative source of protein, healthy fiber and essential fats. If you actually read the websites and books that are critical of soy, they tend to be written in a strong, opinioned voice with what I would call an extremist perspective rather than presenting a researched view. They don’t actually present evidence, but more often, inflammatory statements.

Of course, there is no single food that is a “magic bullet” for health and I never support presenting any food that way. Part of the problem is the way we market and package foods. Once research indicates a health benefit for a food, the FDA allows health claims on food products. That means, even if you add the so-called healthy food to a junk food, the manufacturer can make a health claim on the label. So what happens next? It starts to show up in everything from cereals to ice cream. Why? Because health claims sell products. This widespread use of soy as a food additive has I believe, contributed to the substantial backlash.

There is some valid concern I share with those critical of soy. I am concerned that soy is showing up in almost every processed food. I find folks are constantly looking for ways to continue to eat “healthier” versions of the high carbohydrate foods they love, and food manufacturers have been all too happy to help out. There are now low carbohydrate bars, cereals, breads, pizza dough, chips, and ice cream and on and on it goes. Adding soy to these processed foods increases the protein content and lowers the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, allowing some people to justify eating the food as a healthy alternative. This potentially exposes people to soy in almost everything they eat (and often it’s non-organic soy). I don’t support the use of these products, or the use of processed foods in general. And because soy contains plant estrogens, excessive amounts of soy are not a good idea for anyone. And especially children, who unfortunately are most likely getting many of these low-carbohydrate food options. This is where my agreement with the critics ends.

There are “theoretical” claims that soy contains anti-thyroid substances. And that is true, as do broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. This has been a concern with soy as far back as the 1950’s but there has not been any evidence in animal or human studies of any real impact. In fact I have a specialty in my practice working with people who have thyroid disorders and in 15 years of practice I’ve never been able to associate soy use with changes in thyroid function or poor control of thyroid conditions. Of course, my “research” is anecdotal, but I’ve observed hundreds of people with these conditions.

There is another claim that soy can cause certain mineral deficiencies. And yes, soy contains phytates like spinach and most beans and grains. Phytates can inhibit absorption of some minerals. Again, a healthy varied diet would prevent mineral deficiencies. I always recommend a basic multivitamin and mineral supplement for everyone anyway.

I have a few valid concerns with soy myself. Soy foods come from soybeans, and like all beans, some people get gassy from them. There is a solution to this. Using digestive enzymes, or a product called Beano. The coating on all beans contains a sugar that can be hard to digest, but Beano and a good balanced digestive enzyme product will provide the necessary enzyme to digest it. Generally the fermented soy foods like miso and tempeh are easier to digest and actually enhance digestion by providing additional digestive enzymes and probiotics.

In addition, there are some people who are unfortunately, allergic to soy. If the digestive problem is not solved with enzymes, then it’s likely an allergy. Soy is one of the top 15 foods that are common allergen foods (behind dairy, peanuts, wheat and eggs). If you are allergic, then soy should be avoided. I can help you discover if this is the case for you.

I believe it’s important to stay open to new discoveries through valid research about the foods we eat. I will continue to monitor what we learn about soy, as well as other health concerns. All things considered I believe soy foods can be healthy for most people as part of a varied diet. I hasten to add that I only recommend eating organic soy. It should state non-GMO soy right on the label. Unfortunately most soy grown in this country is genetically modified and has been for many years. It was modified in order to sustain the use of large amounts of powerful chemical pesticides. Therefore consuming non-organic soy foods could likely mean they contain lots of pesticide residues in addition to possible dangers of being a genetically modified food.

I enjoy eating soy regularly myself. I especially enjoy getting fresh soy foods from Hodo Soy at our Farmers’ Markets here in the Bay Area. You may want to check their website for market schedules. I’ll bet they’ll even give you recipe tips. If you are not in the Bay Area, look for fresh tofu and soy products in your area.