By Kelly Burton
Giving up dairy? Try soy. Meat? Try soy. Having hot flashes? Try soy. Want to reduce your risk of heart disease? Try soy. Feeding animals? Try soy. Need gas? Try biodiesel made from soy. Consuming processed foods? More soy. Plastics, inks, crayons, vodka, soaps, resins, solvents and clothing – soy, soy, soy, soy, soy, soy, soy, soy! Soy seems to be the answer to everything. The soy industry certainly thinks so, but many health care professionals and researchers disagree. What is all the hype about?
Soybean is a species of legume that is native to East Asia. Fermented soybeans include tempeh, miso and natto. Many studies on fermented soy show a positive health affect on health, including protection against atherosclerosis, PMS, bone-loss and menopausal symptoms. Miso, natto and tempeh are very rich in nutrients, especially Vitamin K, are a food source of Vitamin B12, and contain lactobacillus, a friendly bacteria found mostly in yogurt. Fermented soy is deserving of its super-food status.
However, unfermented soy products are a different story. Although increasingly popular amongst consumers, the question of the health implications are controversial. Unfermented soybeans have inundated our food supply and are used extensively in animal feed, processed foods, milks, supplements, infant baby formulas, iced cream and many other products. The difference between fermented soy and unfermented soy is that without the fermentation process, soybeans contain the enzyme inhibitor trypsin, which makes them hard to digest. The fermentation process eliminates this trypsin-inhibiting effect.
Soy milks, infant soy formulas, soy protein powders, soy concentrates, and soy isolates often contain denatured proteins and/or isolated proteins without the necessary cofactors for digestion and metabolism. They are not necessarily the miracle food they are being promoted as.
The soy industry is big business. The popularity of soybean in North America was prompted by Henry Ford who helped to develop it for use in food and industrial products as a response to a lack of ability to grow cotton and palm oils in the North American climate. Bushels of soybeans were used in each car. Soybeans were easier to grow and showed a significant economic benefit. Between 1976 and 2006 farm cash receipts were equal to $680 million in Canada, making it the fifth most “valuable” food crop. In 1992 soy was an $800 million dollar industry.
In October 1999, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) gave manufacturers permission to put labels on products high in soy protein indicating that they help lower heart disease risk. As a result, soybean sales increased to $4 billion by 2003. So what’s the problem? It sounds great for the economy, farmers and the entire agriculture sector. Not likely so great for the health of humans.
Anti-soy activists and skeptics report that these studies may be flawed for representing the interests of the agri-food companies. They assert that, contrary to the FDA claims, soy consumption is hazardous to human health. Research suggests that soybean consumption is linked to thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, immune system breakdown, heart disease and cancer. The concern is that the studies that supported the health-promoting benefits of soy were submitted by soy producers with a vested interested in promoting soy as a heart-healthy food. Consumption (and profits) increased dramatically since the FDA claim. Coincidentally four of the world’s major agri-food businesses are strong supporters of the trade associations that have marketed this food so successfully.
The Weston A Price Foundation (WAPF), a U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to “restoring nutrient-dense foods to the American diet through education, research and activism,” offered heavy criticism and filed a petition to the FDA to reconsider the soybean health claims. They pointed out that it is widely acknowledged that soy is one of the top eight allergens and warned that the increase use of soy protein hidden in foods is increasing the potential for sensitization.
Studies on infant soy formula
Another major concern is the effect that is caused by the consumption of infant soy formula. Soy formulas contain isoflavones – genistein and daidzein – that function as estrogens, but are from foreign substances and are not generated within the endocrine system.
They are acquired from eating phyto-estrogenic plants like soybeans.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found babies who were fed a soy-based formula experienced estrogen-like responses due to the plant-based estrogen-mimicking compounds in soy.
Studies have caused concern that soy isoflavones may affect the reproductive system of infants. According to the Lancet Medical Journal (1997), infants consuming soy formula had five to 10 times higher isoflavones in the blood than did woman who were receiving soy supplements. Other reports indicate that infants who ingest soy infant formula have the equivalent to three birth control pills worth of estrogen every day.
Manganese toxicity is also a concern. Past research suggests that soy-based infant formulas can result in as much as 200 times the level of manganese as found in breast milk, an unsafe level for infants. Manganese toxicity has been associated with hyperactivity, behavioural disorders and slow growth. As a result of these concerns the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report that claims, while it is clear that there is no conclusive evidence that soy formula interferes with reproductive or hormonal systems in babies, there are many questions that need to be answered. Soy infant formula’s only suitable for infants with galactosemia or hereditary lactase deficiency and infants who follow a strict vegan diet. They go on to say that if your doctor instructs you to put your baby on a soy-based formula, ask why before pursuing.
Other studies on unfermented soybeans have demonstrated that high levels of phytoestrogens interfere with thyroid hormones and can be expected to generate thyroid abnormalities, including goiter and autoimmune thyroiditis.
Genetically modified soybeans
There is also the genetic modification factor. In 1995, Monsanto Company introduced genetically modified soybeans that are resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Round Up. Farmers have now adopted the use of the genetically modified crops to improve yields, save time and reduce money spent on pesticides. In 1997, eight per cent of American soybeans were genetically modified; by 2010, this number rose to 93 per cent.
In the book “Seed of Deception, and Genetic Roulette,” Jeffery Smith addresses concerns about the physiological side effects of genetically modified soy. He refers to a study on three generations of soy-fed hamsters. The results showed no effect on first generation soy eaters; by the second generation, the hamsters were exhibiting slower growth rate, reached their sexual maturity later than normal, and had a five-fold infant mortality rate, compared to the five percent death rate that was happening in controls; the third generation of hamsters were almost all sterile. One thing is certain: the introduction of genetically modified food crops into the food supply is something to be cautious of. The long-term effects on future generations have not yet been studied adequately.
Many researchers agree that further research is required. Am I suggesting that everyone quit eating all unfermented soy products? The answer is no. Variety is important in every diet and I still intend to consume moderate amounts of tofu. Eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods is important. If you drink soy milk, consider alternating with rice or almond milk. Read your labels and choose organic products to reduce your exposure to genetically modified organisms. Get to know your local farmers and communicate with them about how your food was grown. Listen to your body and consume food that makes you feel good.
Kelly Burton has several years experience as holistic nutritionist, and was a registered orthomolecular health practitioner, and is the former co-owner/operator of Cafe Natura: Whole Food Eatery and Nutraceutical Dispensary in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.