This post is first in the “Food Lies” series. Stay tuned to CGE for more.
As I researched this blog post – spending hours wading through studies on mice, rats, pigs, Koreans, and post-menopausal women in various medical journals (as well as a brief detour into “The Trouble with Medical Journals” by Richard S. Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal) – I realized that my goal (writing a teensy blog post) was underwhelming compared to the task at hand.
With the volume of “studies” available, it is inevitable that interested parties will shine the brightest light on studies that further their agenda, whether benevolent or self-serving. While I respect the Weston A. Price Foundation, Nora Gedgaudas, and others whose work I follow, it’s important to TRY to wade through the larger available body of research as well as peruse pro – and anti– soy websites and the information they provide.
My trek through the soy muck left me confident that soy is, at best, useless as part of an otherwise well-rounded diet; and at worst, capable of damage. It’s not the natural, beautiful, huggable product it’s marketed to be; it’s also probably not the devil that Lierre Keith makes it out to be when consumed by a consenting adult. I suppose it all depends on whether one desires to consume something over which there is such controversy.
(There MAY be a rock in this snowball – would you still like me to throw it at your head?)
IF certain components of soy (not just soy burgers, Tofurkey, or other processed and preservative-laden meat substitutes) are as dangerous as cautious anti-soy warriors believe – and there is little debate over the presence of isoflavones, lectins, phytic acid, and trypsin inhibitors in soy – it is absolutely worth avoiding.
Further, I found absolutely no conclusive proof that soy possesses exclusively the positive health effects that the soy industry has been permitted by the FDA (this permission does NOT equate to a recommendation) to proclaim. More on this later.
If you’re a vegetarian and animal protein is simply not an option, I wouldn’t hassle you for eating soy (if we were friends) – despite suggestions that it could degrade the immediate and long-term health of your nursing or weaned baby (see one, two and three), negatively impact your thyroid, or stymie your nutrient absorption due to the phytic acid content.
So there you have it.
For more, feel free to read on. Warning: This blog post has very few pictures to distract from the content.
It seemed that every available study I read that concluded soy COULD be beneficial (citing a typical Asian diet or anti-cancer properties, for example) was either conducted on small omnivorous animals, had no real-world dietary application (massive supplementation of soy protein vs. casein – milk protein– which has a multitude of problems all on its own), or was simply “inconclusive” (more on that below).
Looking at the Asian diet, as many studies do, one could conclude based on rates of heart disease that Asian populations that consume soy are healthier than Americans who do not. This is the downfall of most “studies” we hear about in the media – based on comparison alone, we are told that soy “may” reduce our risk of heart disease. Never mind other, apparently irrelevant lifestyle elements between these two groups of people – what kind of soy (whole bean; Tofurkey meat substitute; fermented – which made all the difference in this study), the other components of diet and lifestyle, sugar consumption, consumption of processed foods chock-full of preservatives and gluten…to me, I was reading science that was useless for the purpose of dietary recommendations. Then again, I’m not a scientist (yet). Then again…neither are most of those individuals making lifestyle choices based on these useless reports.
In study-review papers I grew accustomed to reading things like this:
From the Journal of Nutrition, Health Effects of Soy Protein and Isoflavones in Humans:
The most recent human results obtained since 1999 show some inconsistencies in the lipid-lowering functions of soy, especially the magnitude of the effects. Moreover, studies on the other potential health benefits of soy such as prevention of postmenopausal bone loss, certain types of cancers, and diabetes and relief of menopausal symptoms remain inconclusive. Meanwhile, the potential adverse effects of certain soy components observed in animal and human studies such as antithyroid actions, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenesis enhancement potential are not well understood but are increasingly becoming a concern for soy consumers, health professionals, and policy makers.”
From Soy: A Complete Source of Protein by Aaron J. Michelfelder, MD at Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine:
Although studies show an improvement in lipid levels, there have been no studies to prove that soy protein interventions improve cardiovascular outcomes. One study that included more than 16,000 women failed to show a reduction in cardiovascular risk with a diet high in phytoestrogens. Therefore, more data are needed before a definitive relationship between soy and cardiovascular outcomes can be established.”
a randomized placebo-controlled trial of a dietary intervention of multibotanicals plus whole soy protein did not show the soy intervention to be better than placebo over one year in 165 women.”
So soy is neutral? With regards to the outcomes of targeted, symptom-specific studies, perhaps. This does not apply to other soy concerns, however. While certain proponents of soy find the detractors’ claims overblown, I personally, have no interest in eating something with this kind of baggage. My plant-based favorites (broccoli, zucchini and carrots) have yet to make headlines for having as much estrogen as five birth control pills or for causing bloody stools in babies:
Soy allergy (often leading to bloody diarrhea) is reported in about 1 percent of infants on soy formulas and usually resolves by three years of age, when most of these children begin to tolerate soy products.”
Great – so I can expect that it will only take three years of bloody diarrhea for my infant to begin tolerating soy? Patience and persistence!
So at this point, frustrated and exasperated, I decided to REALLY think for myself. Based on what I had – or had not – learned during the course of my investigation, I concluded the following:
1) There are better choices than soy and soy products that have all the benefits but none of the exhausting controversy (Pastured meats & veggies).
2) There are many moneyed forces with great financial interest in our continued consumption of soy and soybean oil and it is in their best interest that we believe soy is extremely healthy. (Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Solae.)
3) US Agriculture Policy gives attractive subsidies to grain and soy farmers. It’s an attractive crop to grow, both for the supposed “little guy” and the big companies that buy it and process it.
4) From an evolutionary perspective, beans and legumes have not been eaten for more than a few thousand years. Much of that time (up until the last hundred years) the soy was fermented, thus greatly disabling problematic anti-nutrients.
5) Fermentation is too much work and fake bacon sucks. (Be sure to check out the drop-down ingredient list)
6) 4 million years of human evolution and my Experiment of One leads me to believe we’re probably best adapted to eat foods that have always been food: meats, veggies, fruit. I didn’t learn this from a commercial for soymilk, Soy Joy, or Tofurkey, however, so I can’t be sure.
7) There’s no reason to drink soymilk because there’s no reason to eat the things one pours soymilk over. (Unless it’s a bowl of vegetables, in which case – just eat the vegetables.)
8) Soy replacement products are full of crap.
9) Refer to #4.