Soy - Super
Bean or Super Threat?
Soy - it truly seems to be a wonder food. Soy is an excellent
source of dietary fiber and protein. It is rich in vitamin
B6 - important in building amino acids and in the formation
of neurotransmitters. Furthermore, soy is often recommended
as an alternative for meat in low-fat diets.
But soy's greatest advantage may lie in it being a rich source
of isoflavones - plant hormones that have been linked to several
For example, researchers believe a soy-based diet could account
for Asia's low rate of heart disease. The leading cause of
death in the United States, one of the risk factors for coronary
heart disease is high levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol.
In recent clinical trials, men and women with high LDL levels
were able to reduce them by consuming soy over an extended
period. In October, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)
announced that certain foods containing soy will be able to
claim that they may help reduce the risk of coronary heart
disease. (To qualify, the food must contain at least 6.25
grams of soy per serving, one-quarter of the daily recommended
serving of 25 grams).
And that's not all. It is possible that isoflavones may help
prevent bone loss, therefore lowering the risk of osteoporosis.
A soy diet may also play a role in the reduced incidence of
menopausal symptoms among Asian women - in fact, it is thought
that plant hormones will eventually take the place of conventional
estrogen-replacement therapy. Finally, isoflavones have been
credited with reducing the rates of certain types of cancer.
For example, there is some evidence that eating soy may reduce
your risk of developing breast cancer. And isoflavones were
the primary ingredients in a "smart bomb" - a drug that University
of Minnesota scientists believe holds the potential to cure
childhood leukemia. Finally, a study by the Cancer Research
Center of Hawaii indicates that consumption of soy products
may help reduce the risk of uterine cancer.
So why aren't westerners pouring soy milk in their cornflakes
and chowing down on soy burgers at the local fast food restaurant?
Soy still suffers from a bit of an image problem in the west.
A common complaint by first-time users is that it just tastes
too "beany." Still, manufacturers believe a soy revolution
is coming. Soy-based yogurt, pudding, and hot dogs may soon
compete with soy burgers for space on grocery shelves.
But while food manufacturers want to turn us on to soy, others
feel the pro-soy movement is ignoring a host of health problems.
Allergies, for example. Soy is one of eight foods responsible
for the majority of food allergies, and one of five foods
most commonly associated with food allergies in children.
People with a soy allergy can suffer everything from hives
and diarrhea to breathing difficulties upon eating this food.
Furthermore. just as some people have lactose intolerance,
there are others who have soy intolerance. (While food allergies
involve the immune system, food intolerance is caused by an
In recent months, soy's detractors have made other claims
that are both more serious and harder to prove. For example,
there is increasing concern that eating large amounts of soy
can affect thyroid function. Particularly worrisome is the
presence of phytoestrogens in soy-based infant formulas (isoflavones
are a category of phytoestrogen). Critics point out that the
level of phytoestrogens in soy-based formula is over 20,000
times that found in breast milk. In a press release last June,
the Canadian Health Coalition stated that consumption of soy
formulas could lead to a host of health problems, including
thyroid dysfunction. They called on federal Health Minister
Allan Rock to impose restrictions on the use of soy-based
infant formulas. (As of this date, the Minister has not taken
any action). Meanwhile, a groundbreaking study by the Pacific
Health Research Institute links high levels of tofu consumption
with cognitive impairment and the development of Alzheimer's
disease in later life.
Super bean or super threat? Should you swear off tofu and
throw out the soy sauce? No - for one thing, the amount of
soy contained in soy sauce is comparatively low, since it
consists mainly of water. More to the point, the real problem
is not whether soy is inherently bad (after all, people have
been consuming plants with hormones for centuries) but that
no one is sure how much soy it is safe to consume. The Institute
of Food Research states that Asian populations regularly consume
high amounts of soy, without any negative effects. On the
other hand, the Soy Online Service claims that the actual
level of soy consumed by Asians is quite low. I think both
these claims are a bit exaggerated. Nonetheless, if soy starts
turning up in everything from cereal to ice cream, we may
begin consuming far higher amounts than is normally found
in the Asian diet, without any real idea of the consequences.
It's something to think about.