Soy Revisited

Lately the question of soy has come up again. Friends have asked questions. I gave inadequate answers. So I decided to do a bit more research into whether or not we should choose to include this oh-so-common little bean and its by-products in our diets.

If you are trying to avoid soy completely, if you have a soy allergy or sensitivity, all I can say is good luck! Corn and soy are the major staples of our agricultural system and therefore corn and soy products are incorporated into just about every type of processed food, from meats in the deli case to baked goods to condiments. When you see the words "natural flavorings" on a product label, this usually means soy or possibly corn. Monosodium glutimate is derived from soy. Any cereal in a box which claims to have protein in it contains soy. Most "power" bars contain at least some soy.

Originally, soy beans were planted by farmers as a cover crop. All types of beans, peas, and legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, so they are a very beneficial cover crop. But soy is notoriously difficult for our bodies to digest. (Hence the very common soy allergies.) Food science wizards soon came up with all kinds of ways to process those little green beans in order to turn them into dollars. After all, why not profit from those suckers?

With the rise of the free love movement, the "me" generation, and those long-haired, sandal-wearing vegetarians, suddenly soy products were "hip" and counter-cultural. You would never catch Richard Nixon eating tofu, so it must be cool, right? Young radicals avoiding meat turned to soy as the new, health-giving manna from heaven. And now that low-carb, high protein diets are in, soy has wormed its way into even more products (cereals, breads, pastas) under the guise of added protein.

You may have heard that Japanese women have a much lower rate of breast cancer than Americans. Researchers have chosen to suggest that it is the soy in their diets which is responsible for this lower rate. However, the traditional Japanese diet actually contains much less soy than Americans are currently consuming! (A 1998 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that the Japanese typically consume about 1/4 cup of soy every one-two days.) The Japanese diet is also traditionally high in fish and seafood, sea vegetables, and fresh veggies while extremely low in sugar, wheat, and dairy products. Perhaps the lower breast cancer rate is due to another aspect of their lifestyle?

Another important factor to consider is fermentation. When soy products are fermented (like tempeh, miso, and natto) the bean's components are broken down in a way that assists digestion and makes all the nutrients readily available for absorption. These traditional soy foods might be used as a component of a healthy, safe diet. However, the vast majority of soy products consumed in this country are unfermented. Unfermented soy contains phytates which bind to essential minerals, preventing the absorption of these minerals. There are also protease inhibitors in unfermented soy which may prevent pancreatic enzymes from properly digesting proteins.

The battle over whether or not soy products are safe and healthy continues to rage. You will probably continue to hear about studies which have determined that soy is a wonderful miracle food. I have read enough sources which I trust to determine for myself that I mostly want to avoid soy. A little fermented soy, like miso paste in a salad dressing or soup, is probably just fine. If you love soy, I would recommend aiming to consume mostly fermented products.

(Info in this blog derived from Before the Change: Taking Charge of Your Perimenopause by Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph. D.)