The Soy Controversy: Is it Safe to Consume?

September 10, 2019

"There’s a lot of controversy as to whether soy is good for you or not, and the ultimate answer is that it both is and isn’t."

On today’s live show Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, will take a deep dive into a plant-based diet controversy — eating soy products. Dr. Nancy will lay out the facts when it comes to soy, which products are good for us, which are not, and how much is safe to consume. You won’t want to miss the information this show is loaded with!

Video Highlights

  • 02:52: Soy Facts
  • 08:11: Soybeans: Why the Controversy?
  • 14:51: Avoid Soy-Protein Isolates
  • 18:21: Good Forms of Soy
  • 26:50: Red Quinoa and Soybeans Salad Recipe
  • 36:39: Wrap-Up

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the safety of soy consumption, so we’d like to clear that up for you today. By the end of this article, you’re going to be an expert on all things soy. Ready? Let’s get started.

Here are a few interesting facts about soybeans:

  • The soybean originally came from China, with records showing it’s popularity back to 1000 BC
  • Today the United States is the leading producer of soybeans in the world
  • In 2018, over 88 million acres of soybeans were planted across the U.S.
  • Soybean production was a 39-billion-dollar industry in America last year. 
  • Iowa leads the charge as the state with the highest soybean production. 
  • One soybean plant can yield as many as 80 pods. 
  • One acre of soybeans can produce 83,000 crayons. Yes, crayons made with soybean oil are very popular!

With all that soybean production, you can imagine it has many different uses, but we’re talking about soy as an ingredient in foods, and it’s in a lot of foods. Some of them are obvious and some of them are not so obvious. 

Some of the most popular soy and soy-based products are: 

  • Soy sauce
  • Edamame
  • Tofu
  • Soymilk
  • Miso
  • Tempeh

But there are other foods that often contain hidden amounts of soy, including:

  • Baby formula
  • Cereal
  • Some peanut butters
  • Deli meats
  • Canned tuna

Some of those are really surprising, right?

Soybeans: Why the Controversy?

The soybean is a legume in the same family as peas, alfafa, and clover. In their most basic form, they’re extremely good for you and packed with important nutrients, like:

Unfortunately, however, soy in its most basic state isn’t how it’s most often consumed. Most soy is an over-produced product — so much so that all that processing whittles away the nutrients, stripping away the benefits found in that soybean plucked right off the vine. 

Another thing to be careful of is that over 90% of soy crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified to be able to withstand pesticides and carcinogenic herbicides.

That means those pesticides and carcinogens are finding their way into the food you eat, and they some have been linked to cancers, as well as digestion issues because they prevent good gut bacteria from doing its job. 

And here’s something else about soy. Soy contains something known as anti-nutrients — compounds that work against the body. This is because the plant uses these anti-nutrient compounds to protect itself against outside threats, which then translates to an inability to absorb nutrients within the body. Stay tuned for a future episode about the most dangerous antibodies.

Despite all this, soy is loved by carnivores and vegetarians alike. In soy sauce, it has become a household staple, used in everything from stir fries to salad dressings, and even hamburgers. For vegetarians, soy is added to meat substitutes to give them the same texture as their meaty counterparts. It also serves as a source of protein for those who eat only a plant-based diet. 

The great versatility of soy is partly what makes it so controversial.  

There has been a debate for years as to whether soy is linked to breast cancer, which gives many women enough reason to avoid it. But the truth is, there has been no conclusive evidence that finds a direct link between soy itself and breast cancer. 

In fact, one of the largest studies ever conducted — over 73,000 women from China participated — sought to find out the truth between soy and its potential connection to breast cancer. The study found that those women actually had a decreased risk of breast cancer. 

Additionally, people who eat a traditional Asian diet, which is loaded with soy-based foods, milks, pastes, and seasonings, have a lower rate of heart disease than those who consume a more Western diet. Those people were also found to have lower rates of osteoporosis

Avoid Soy-Protein Isolates

There’s one little hitch, though. That study we just talked about? It only focused on soy that’s been minimally processed. It did not look at soy-protein isolates, which are often added to processed foods, as well as added to protein bars, vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes, and even baby formula — all the stuff many Americans love to consume.

This type of soy is in no way natural. In fact, it’s manufactured in a lab. It begins as a powder derived from the actual soybean, but then it’s heated and soaked in a chemical called hexane, which causes the protein to separate out of the soybean. Hexane is a neurotoxin that, on its own, can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, and damage to the nervous system, which might explain why soy-protein isolates has even shown to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells.

We always recommend you avoid processed foods in general, but when it comes to soy, this is a must do. Avoid any product containing soy-protein isolate

Additional forms of soy that sneaks its way into some of the food people eat includes:

  • Soy lecithin
  • Processed soy protein
  • Soybean oil
  • Soybean flour

So, even if you’re someone who believes you shouldn’t be eating soy, chances are good that you’re consuming it withoout realizing it. Always read the labels on the foods you buy and put that product right back on the shelf if you see it contains any of the above ingredients.

Good Forms of Soy 

There are some good forms of soy that are safe to eat and even beneficial to your health. Good forms of soy include anything fermented. These forms of soy are great because, during the fermentation process, microorganisms are added that help make digesting the soy easier by breaking down its nutrients. For soy, the nutrients are broken down into essential amino acids. Tempeh, especially, sees a mega-boost in antioxidants because the soybeans are combined with a batch of pre-colonized, well-established microorganisms. If you’ve ever made sourdough bread, it’s a similar process to adding a starter. 

If you’re unfamiliar, let’s go over a quick rundown of the various forms of fermented soy:

Tempeh

Tempeh is a firm cake-like substance made from cooked and fermented soybeans. It’s often mentioned in the same breath as tofu, which we’ll talk about shortly, but it’s better for you and it’s loaded with fiber and probiotics

Tamari

If tempeh is tofu’s food cousin, tamari is the same to soy sauce in the sauce world. Tamari is a dipping sauce made from fermented soybeans, but it exceeds soy sauce in benefits, because it doesn’t contain wheat, an ingredient commonly found in soy sauce. 

Natto

Okay, this next one can be a little off-putting when you see it. This is another fermented soy product called natto. Natto is a combination of soybeans and good bacteria that ferment for a long period of time, giving the soybeans a slimy, sticky consistency. They’re great for gut health and have a delicious flavor that’s often referred to as umami, one of the five basic tastes. Umami is a savory flavor, best described as “brothy” or “meaty.” Seaweed, miso, and mushrooms are foods that are described to have an umami flavor to them. Once you taste natto, you’ll realize that does, too.  

Miso

The most common fermented soy product though is probably miso. Miso is an umami flavored fermented soybean paste made by combining soybeans with a mold called koji. The koji breaks down the nutrients in the soy so it’s more easily digested. 

Even though they go through a fermenting process, fermented soy products are very minimally processed and all of them contain both pre- and probiotics that promote a healthy digestive system. 

Edamame

Second to fermented soy products, edamame is probably the best soy product you could choose since it isn’t processed at all. It’s soy served in its whole form, packing all the nutrient-rich punch that a tiny little bean can offer. 

In fact, there’s a great edamame recipe that also happens to be extremely easy, as well as extremely good for you.

Red Quinoa and Soybeans Salad Recipe

  • 2 cups dry red quinoa
  • 1 cup cooked soybeans
  • 1 large apple, any variety
  • 1 orange
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
  • Salt to taste

To make the salad, cook the quinoa in 4 cups of water until done according to package directions. This is usually around 15 to 20 minutes. Once done, set it aside and let it cool.

Chop the apple into small, bite-sized chunks. 

Once the quinoa has cooled, zest the orange over the quinoa. Then, juice the orange and spread over the quinoa. 

To finish, add the soybeans, apple, dill, and salt to the quinoa and stir to combine. 

Stick it in the fridge, covered, and let it marinate for about 10 minutes or so before you serve it. 

Tofu 

Tofu does have some processing, but better brands have more minimal processing. Tofu is made from condensed soymilk that’s been pressed into blocks, a process that’s not dissimilar to that of cheesemaking. When eating tofu, make sure it’s organic and non-genetically modified, or non-GMO

We keep mentioning it’s okay to eat soy in small amounts. We’ve also talked about soy’s potential link to breast cancer. The reason to have concerns about soy is that soy contains a compound called isoflavones, a classification of phytoestrogens, or plant-based estrogens, that closely mimic estrogen found in humans. These isoflavones attach themselves to estrogen receptors in the body and have been rumored to cause a number of health risks. In addition to possibly breast cancer, soy may also be associated with concerns about:

  • Thyroid function because it could possibly hinder the absorption of iodine
  • The production of testosterone in men, which could affect fertility

Did you know that soy is also one of the top five foods that trigger adult-onset allergies?

Signs of a soy allergy include:

  • Hives
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Asthma
  • Itchy mouth

To find out if you’re allergic to soy, either pay a visit to your primary care physician, who might recommend you see an allergist for testing, or to try and elimination diet. If you’re unfamiliar, an elimination diet requires you to cut out certain foods like sugar, caffeine, eggs, carbs, and dairy for a period of two or three weeks and then you gradually reintroduce certain foods to see if they’re an allergy trigger. 

The final ruling on eating soy is, as long as you’re eating a well-balanced diet that includes some organic soy, you should be in no danger. This applies to all our vegetarian and vegan friends, too — try not to rely on soy as your only protein source. Legumes, seeds, and nuts are loaded with protein, too. Combining those foods with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, in addition to taking a multi-vitamin like our Smarter Mulitvitamin — a plant-sourced multivitamin that gives you just the right amount of nutrients to make up for those you might not be getting throughout your day — will ensure you’re getting all the essential vitamins and minerals you need. 

Wrap-Up

Today we talked about all-things soy. Soy is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and no wonder — soy is found in a lot of the foods we eat. 

There’s a lot of controversy as to whether soy is good for you or not, and the ultimate answer is that it both is and isn’t. Really, it all comes down to how you’re eating soy, what form of soy you’re eating, and how much you’re eating. 

Foods containing soy-protein isolate or soy lecithin are forms of soy you should stay away from. They’re highly processed and/or their processed using toxic chemicals. 

Good forms of soy include fermented soy products like tempeh, miso, natto, and tamari. Tofu that is minimally processed is another safe way to consume soy. 

The best form of soy, however, is in its purest form, also known as edamame. Organic, non-GMO edamame retains all the iron, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and protein the soybean is meant to provide. 

The bottom line is that soy is okay to eat in moderation. Make sure it’s minimally processed or not processed at all, and that it’s organic and non-GMO.

Hopefully you found this information helpful and learned something from it! Make sure to share it with your friends and family, or anyone concerned about the soy controversy.

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