Soy — Health Food or Not?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Soy protein has been touted for years as a “healthy” product that can lower your risk of heart disease, but the FDA recently announced the claim is temporarily off the table due to “inconsistent findings”
  • There’s no guarantee you won’t see continued advertising on food packages saying soy is good for you, as between now and the FDA’s final ruling on the matter, manufacturers can continue advertising the claim
  • Antinutrients in soy include phytates, which prevent the absorption of certain minerals, estrogens (which can block the hormone estrogen and disrupt endocrine function) and goitrogens, which interfere with your thyroid function
  • Numerous Asian populations, typically Japanese, who are arguably healthier than those eating a Western diet, have traditionally eaten fermented soy, such as miso, natto and tempeh, which helps to deactivate some of the antinutrients soy contains

By Dr. Mercola

It’s a controversial topic in the culinary world today — the perception some have that soy is a health food. Soybeans in the pod, you may know, look a little like short, puffy, green peas with peach fuzz on the outside. Representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced a boomerang-like decision on how soy protein should be viewed from now on.

In fact, the agency is proposing to revoke its long-held stance that soy protein can lower your heart disease risk. The current claim, which you may have seen on various food packages, reads: “25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”1

Many health advocates claim soy must be good for you because Asian people — arguably one of the healthiest populations on the planet — have eaten it a lot, and have some of the lowest rates of heart disease, cancer and dementia worldwide,2 so, it appears, the rest of the world should eat soy protein products, too. However, the type of soy traditionally consumed by Asian people differs from that being heavily marketed in the U.S.

Soy rose seemingly from nowhere into the American consciousness in the late 20th century.3 In 1999, the FDA allowed food producers to claim that soy protein was heart healthy, but continuing research has convinced government officials to take a closer look. Incidentally, there are 12 health claims sanctioned by the FDA for packaged foods, including the continued (and false) insistence that saturated fat is the culprit behind heart disease.4

The ‘Soy Is Good for Heart Disease’ Claim up for Discussion

While many in the conventional health and scientific communities aren’t prepared to rescind the assertion completely, Susan Mayne, the FDA’s director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition stated, after what she called an “extensive scientific review:”

“Our review of that evidence has led us to conclude that the relationship between soy protein and heart disease does not meet the rigorous standard for an FDA-authorized health claim … While some evidence continues to suggest a relationship between soy protein and a reduced risk of heart disease — including evidence reviewed by the FDA when the claim was authorized — the totality of currently available scientific evidence calls into question the certainty of this relationship.”5

A 75-day period of discussion is being allowed by the FDA for the public and stakeholders (aka manufacturers, lobbyists and those who stand to profit or suffer from the ruling or revocation) to petition for certain phrasing, which will be taken by a “case-by-case basis.”

However, there’s no guarantee you won’t see claims on food packages continuing the claim of a link between soy protein and a lowered risk of heart disease. In fact, between now and the FDA’s final ruling on the matter, manufacturers can continue advertising the claim. According to Time:

“The FDA says that it intends to allow the use of ‘a qualified health claim’ for soy protein (and says) a qualified health claim requires ‘lower scientific standard of evidence than an authorized health claim’ and would let producers use language that explains that the evidence on the link is limited.”6

How the Soybean and Natural Products Associations Weigh In

Not surprisingly, soy producers across the U.S. aren’t happy, especially since soy is the second-biggest crop in the U.S., making it a $40 billion industry, although 98 percent of it is for animal feed, according to Modern Farmer.7 So what changed their minds enough to contemplate a complete reversal on a stance the agency has maintained for nearly 20 years?

Naturally, the Soyfoods Association of North America has expressed concern and contends that numerous studies, both before the 1999 claim and after the new revocation proposal, hold up as a standard that soy protein lowers LDL cholesterol and that the evidence as a whole supports its heart-healthy claim. In reality, however, cholesterol is an essential component in nearly every cell in your body and is not the problem in heart disease, raising fundamental questions about this claim.

You could call it frustration on the parts of some entities, especially with accusations that the FDA’s evaluation process is “Spanish Inquisition-like.”8 Food Navigator featured comments of Daniel Fabricant, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association, who said he’s very curious as to the “tipping point” for the FDA’s decision and brings up questions regarding free speech and violations of the First Amendment.9

Soy and (Some of) the Derivatives Thereof: Edamame, Soy Milk and Tofu

All types of soy are based on a single plant species, Glycine max. There are dozens of breeds, and it depends on the age of the plant when it’s harvested which products it will be used for. Soybean pods allowed to mature the longest, Modern Farmer observes:

“ … [A]re hard and water-resistant, so they’re cheaper and easier to process into oil and soymeal for animal feed. While soymilk (and tofu, which is made from soymilk) is made from rehydrated and pulverized mature beans, edamame is made from the young, tender, green beans. And we mostly just don’t bother harvesting immature beans here [in the U.S.].”10

The Healthy Home Economist11 addresses the aforementioned controversy. What, for instance, is bean curd, and is tofu good for you? Natto, miso, traditional soy sauce and tempeh are all foods derived from fermented soybeans. Bean curd is just another name for tofu. Such foods came into being across China about 2,000 years ago when people began using different methods to remove not-so-healthy antinutrients.

Antinutrients are elements and compounds in soy foods such as lectins, saponins, soyatoxin, phytates (which prevent the absorption of certain minerals), oxalates, protease inhibitors, estrogens (which can block the hormone estrogen and disrupt endocrine function) and goitrogens (interfering with your thyroid function) as well as a blood clot-inhibiting substance called hemagglutinin. Other detriments are numerous.

In ancient times, it could take months to ferment so the soybeans would be edible, but The Healthy Home Economist says there’s evidence that they ate very little. In terms of fermenting, tofu is the exception, as it’s a very common food that undergoes extensive processing without fermentation. To create it, there’s a three-step process:

  1. Soybeans are made into soymilk.
  2. A coagulant is added made from salt and acids, making it firm.
  3. The bean curd result is then pressed into blocks, similar to cheese.

In a seemingly contradictive result of eating bean curd, the article adds results of research12 done on ancient Buddhist monks who were both vegan and celibate who happily reported that “eating a lot of soy dampened their libido and reproductive capacity.”13 In addition:

“Food manufacturers create modern tofu using a similar process. However, the traditional coagulants were typically safer. For example, clean, fresh seawater makes an excellent coagulant to transform soy milk into tofu. Compare this to the refined salts or GMO-derived citric acid used today.”14

Soy Products and the Most Insidious Drawbacks

Soy products have been touted for years as “health” foods, especially among vegans who eat tofu, soy cheese and soy milk for extra protein, but the fact is these products pose a greater risk by far than any benefit. It’s no surprise that many who dabble in the hallways of healthy eating still believe eating tofu is the essence of how one should eat if health is a prerequisite.

Most look at the fact that it offers high amounts of protein and iron as all they need to know. Thousands of vegans and vegetarians who ingest it without reservation can’t be wrong, right?

But both excessive protein and iron can be quite dangerous. Exacerbating the misguided line of thinking is that the “low-fat” part of the tofu equation is still, in many people’s minds, the mecca for anyone wanting to lose weight. Many dieticians, nutritionists and food manufacturers still claim tofu is your go-to for good eating.

However, not only are low-fat foods not the solution for weight loss but, as Elena Giordano, a Rutgers postdoctoral research associate in food sciences and nutrition, points out, 93 percent of soy is genetically engineered (GE),15 bringing with it its own set of problems.

A Time article asserts, “ … [I]f you’re worried, you can buy organic soy, which isn’t genetically altered.”16 But this still leaves many of the aforementioned problems. How close is the tofu and other soy protein products you see on grocery shelves and served in restaurants to what was eaten by Asian populations up to a few decades ago? Perhaps the best they can say is that today’s tofu is simply “tofu-like.”

Granted, there are lots of textures and treatments to choose from: firm, extra firm, silky, smoked, dried, frozen and so on.17 Tofu-inspired turkey product is one example of how soy protein is used as a meat replacement, which is a far cry from its traditional use as a food, especially since both traditional and modern Chinese cooking typically includes real meat, not a plant-based wannabe. Then there are the additives:

“Kind of like the bastardization of cheese, with all sorts of nondairy cheeses now filling store shelves, tofu is getting similar treatment. Peanut tofu, almond tofu, egg tofu and others are now available. Many of these don’t even follow a similar production process to soy tofu, but still try to claim the name (and the associated health benefits) for their own!”18

GMOs, Glysophate and Goitrogens

Besides the genetic engineering of most soy grown in the U.S., there are other dangers to consider when contemplating the attributes of consuming soy proteins. Organic options are available, but if you don’t choose them, it’s more than likely that you’ll be ingesting gut-wrecking glyphosate residues. The most common product dispensing it is Roundup, used by multimillion-dollar farming operations — and your next door neighbor — to control weeds.

The problem with glysophate, referred to as possibly the biggest factor in the development of chronic diseases and conditions in the world, is how widespread and devastating the associated problems are, ranging from dementia to autism, infertility to obesity, allergies to cancer. Research published in the journal Food Chemistry found GE soybeans contain high residues of glyphosate and its degradation product aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA).19

On average, GE soy tested in the study contained 11.9 parts per million (ppm) of glyphosate, with the highest residue level found coming in at 20.1 ppm — with unknown effects on human health. Grist adds that problems with “transgenic” contamination, in which GE soy from one field contaminates a non-GE field next door, has also grown along with the market shares of gargantuan biotech seed corporations like Monsanto and DuPont.

Case in point: In the U.S., around 90 percent of the soy, 90 percent of the corn and 80 percent of the cotton is genetically engineered.20 As for the goitrogens, many wonder why, if Asians have such a history of consuming soy, they seem to have the same problems with thyroid issues Westerners do. The answer is that traditionally, Asians haven’t eaten soy products like Colorado ranchers like their steaks: They typically eat very little soy.

Similarly, one must argue that they also eat far less in one sitting than the average American. Another potential reason is that, especially due to their geographic location, Asian diets contain much more iodine, which has compounds that are goitrogen protective. Further, traditionally fermented soy is the form that has been very popular in many Asian cultures for centuries, which is a far cry from the heavily processed non-fermented soy products that are popular in the U.S.

The Difference Between Fermented and Unfermented Soy

There’s a difference between soy that is organic as opposed to nonorganic, but there’s also a big difference when it’s fermented compared to unfermented. The fermentation process may take time and special consideration, but the health benefits are more than worth it. Importantly, the fermentation process “deactivates” many of the antinutrients in soy that act as toxins in your body. So if you want to eat soy, make sure it's traditionally fermented.

As mentioned, what many seem to be missing regarding healthy Japanese people who’ve eaten soy is that it’s largely fermented soy. That includes products like miso, natto, traditionally made soy sauce and tempeh, but not tofu, because tofu is unfermented. Other products that don’t make the cut include:

  • TVP or textured soy protein
  • Soy cheese, soy ice cream, soy milk and soy yogurt
  • Soybean oil
  • Soy infant formula
  • Edamame

One way to keep yourself covered and eat foods that are actually good for you is to eat organic whenever possible, avoid unfermented soy products and also avoid foods that are heavily processed. Stay as “close to the earth” as you can in eating to ensure good health, at least as much as it depends on you.

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